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Right to Development: Worth Celebrating? Yes. Time to Act Now.

manuel_montes-tnAkha Coffee WorkerThirty years ago, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Right to Development (“the Declaration”).   Is this anniversary worth celebrating?  Has this declaration outlived its usefulness and its anniversary best forgotten?   My answer is NO.


Contrary to claims of obsolescence of the right to development, the renewed UN development agenda, as embodied in Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), has reopened the pathways for its realization.

The international community is coming into the light after about two decades of darkness and inattention to problems of development. Aggravating structural adjustment programs of the 1990s brought to the fore a new focus on poverty, which congealed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the 2000s.

Because, in their heyday, the reforms from structural adjustment were thought to be the only tools needed for successful development, the MDGs focused directly on the desired outcome of poverty eradication, even though to a large extent, the MDG policies became means to alleviate suffering from job losses and dislocations associated with earlier market-oriented reforms.

As practiced, the MDGs – on poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, and so on – soon dominated, at the expense of development, state policy in developing countries and international cooperation.  Even though some MDGs, such as education, health and gender equality could be means to development, these could not be long sustained without steady economic growth and structural transformation.

Agenda 2030 restores attention to core development issues, such as growth and employment (SDG 8) and infrastructure and industrialization (SDG 9) and recognizes the role of means of implementation including financing for development, while keeping the poverty-oriented MDG objectives.

In Agenda 2030, at least in terms of intention, international economic cooperation has moved beyond the idea that developing countries have the right to solve their poverty, back to the original idea that they have the right to development.

In fact, the idea that dominant countries could allow and support the alleviation of poverty and social distress has a precedent from colonial times, when the development of colonies was not in prospect.

As the frontier of unalienated land closed globally, the end of scramble for territories in the late 19th century spawned government concerns to justify external control and hold the support of colonized populations.  In his 1987 book entitled Economic Development: The History of an Idea, Hans Arndt records that in the 1920s and 1930s, colonial policy “sounded a new note of responsibility” for “native welfare . . . regarded as quite distinct from that of economic progress or development” (page 27).  In 1939, in a revision of the earlier British Colonial Development Act of 1929, the Colonial Development and Welfare Act provided for minimum standards of nutrition, health, and education in territories and trusteeships.  On page 29, Arndt refers to W. Arthur Lewis’s criticism of a World War II British economic plan for Jamaica, for a failure to distinguish between “social welfare” as raising the standard of living in the colony and “economic development.”

In contrast to colonial economic relations, the Declaration (in Article 1.2) recognizes that the right to development “implies the full realization of the right of peoples to self-determination” including “the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.”

In contrast to colonial relations, in Article 4.2, the declaration obliges that “Sustained action is required to promote more rapid development of developing countries.  As a complement to the efforts of developing countries, effective international co-operation is essential in providing these countries with appropriate means and facilities to foster their comprehensive development.”

Article 4.2 is thus one expression in human rights language of key elements of SDG 8 – “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”

The second part of Article 4.2 finds that effective international co-operation is essential for providing the means for comprehensive development.  The text resonates with the numerous means of implementation goals as part of the SDGs and the call of Agenda 2030 for a “revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.”

The Declaration appears to have set out what could be critical elements in such a revitalized global partnership, including in eliminating obstacles to development.

Article 3.3 actually calls it a duty and, in calling for a new international economic order, anticipates the “Transforming Our World” title of Agenda 2030: “States have the duty to co-operate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development.  States should realize their rights and fulfil their duties in such a manner as to promote a new international economic order based on sovereign equality, interdependence, mutual interest and co-operation among all States, as well as to encourage the observance and realization of human rights.”

Article 2.1 states that the “human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.”  The Declaration takes the philosophical position that people must be active participants in the development process.  This position is less in keeping with the MDGs’ technocratic donor-dominated approach of international cooperation.  Instead, this position calls for democratic decision-making and voice and participation for all, including at the international level.

The language of the Declaration is rich in taking up international issues that continue to bedevil international cooperation today, including  “foreign domination,” “threats of war” (Article 5), and the resources spent on armaments that could instead be spent on “comprehensive development” (Article 7).

In its 1,637 words, the Declaration recognizes the obstacles, suggests means of implementation and, in Article 4.1, assigns to States “the duty to take steps, individually and collectively, to formulate international development policies with a view to facilitating the full realization of the right to development.”  In 1986, the right to development was considered wanting in terms of full realization.  Is the situation still true today and why?

Agenda 2030 points, sometimes incompletely because of compromises made in the negotiations, to some of the important obstacles to the full realization of the right to development.  (For details see my piece entitled Obstacles to Development in the Global Economic System, South Centre Research Paper no. 51.)  For example, SDG 10.5 establishes the goal to “Improve the regulation and monitoring of global financial markets and institutions and strengthen the implementation of such regulations.”

SDG 2.b summons the international community to “Correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets, including through the parallel elimination of all forms of agricultural export subsidies and all export measures with equivalent effect, in accordance with the mandate of the Doha Development Round.”  Domestic agricultural subsidies in the developed countries are a big disincentive for significant investments in the agricultural sector in developing countries, many of whom could be strongly competitive and could address their poverty challenges through the faster development of their rural areas.

The elements of the Declaration can be the standard against which these goals can be evaluated and policy initiatives sharpened toward the full realization of the right to development.

In its 30th anniversary, it is highly timely to re-read the Declaration, take stock of how its analyses apply to current issues and debates, and apply its principles in efforts at transforming our world and revitalizing the global partnership for development.

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