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Does rights talk romanticize the poor? A response to Pranab Bardhan's 'Who Represents the Poor?'

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Economist Pranab Bardhan takes on the rights-based approach in the Boston Review and gets applause from Chris Blattman. There are many important and valid points in the essay, but much of the critique is based on inaccurate assumptions and generalizations about the development sector. Bardhan claims that many activists somehow "romanticize the poor" and that rights-based approaches in a weak state are "hollow and promoting them breeds cynicism" because court orders are not implemented and enforced. While such problems may be real in specific contexts, they are hardly representative of the broader movement. These charges not only misunderstand the sincerity of many development professionals dedicated to eradicating poverty, but fundamentally miss the larger point of rights-based mobilization. Litigation is but one strategy in the RBA tool set, which is most effective when deployed simultaneously at different levels of domestic society. RBA strategies are primarily about raising consciousness and empowerment at the local levels as well as accountability at the state level. For NGOs as external actors using RBA, the strategy is not just about pitting the people against the state, but is requires complex analyses of all forms of inequality and discrimination, especially those prevalent within local communities. Development workers do not admire “the pristine life of the poor and the indigenous,” as Bardhan puts it. Instead, RBA is designed to focus particular attention on community members who have traditionally been disenfranchised, including the poorest.

Of course, much remains to be done and RBA is very much an unfinished agenda. Our recent evaluation of RBA efforts of Plan International finds limited evidence of rights holders successfully holding duty bearers accountable through electoral or other mechanisms. Most development agencies have yet to establish systematic guidelines for how to apply RBA in different contexts as well as systematic methods for evaluating the efficacy of such activities. Most importantly, NGOs often have difficulties developing holistic strategies that simultaneously target community-, civil society- and state-levels. In this sense, Bardhan is right. Winning a single court battle is not an end to the war against poverty. But it is one step towards broader social mobilization which diminishes the role of external actors and increases the influence of domestic democratic forces.
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