Human Rights: Sen’s Approach

by Quentin Wodon

Today is Human Rights Day. The international day was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950 to promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations. This year the theme is “Human Rights 365”, with the idea that matters of human rights should concern us every day and that all individuals should be entitled to their rights everywhere and at all times.

But what exactly are human rights? A simple answer would be to say that these are rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other subsequent international legal instruments. But what does it mean, for example, to declare a human right to housing in a country where a larger share of the population may not have access to decent housing? What does it mean to declare a right to work when unemployment affects many? Are these human rights real or simply (but importantly) aspirational? Is there also a risk of inflation over time in the number of human rights being proclaimed? Do human rights matter at all?

These questions should matter for members of service clubs given that much of their work relates to issues that have been identified as pertaining to human rights.  But these are also difficult questions. I am personally sympathetic to the language of human rights (up to a point), and I do believe among others that extreme poverty and deprivation may lead to violations of human rights, as argued among others by Wresinski (see this post on this blog). But it is worth thinking a bit more about the nature of human rights, and on that question I find the position of Nobel Laureate Amartaya Sen sensible (see for example this paper).

Nobel Laureate Amartaya Sen

Sen is perhaps best known today for his work on functionings and capabilities even though he received his Economics Nobel Prize mostly for other work. According to Sen, social justice should aim to expand not basic primary goods (an expression from Rawls, who is discussed here on this blog) that people have access to such as income or wealth, but instead their capabilities – defined as their freedom to achieve valuable beings and doings (i.e., valuable functionings).

The two terms of functionings and capabilities are closely linked. Simply stated, functionings are valuable activities and states that make up people’s wellbeing and ability to function, and that would include an educated mind or being literate. Capabilities are substantive freedoms that people can pursue and enjoy, with each person’s capabilities set depending on their functionings. Capabilities refer to the possibility for people to use functionings to choose and lead lives that are fulfilling for them.

For example, poverty is traditionally defined as a lack of sufficient income or consumption in order to meet a person or household’s basic needs. Sen prefers to define poverty as capability deprivation. More generally, what a person can achieve depends on the specific characteristics and environment of that person, and not only on the resources (or primary goods) that the person has access to. The same amount of all-purpose resources can lead to very different capability sets for different individuals (think of people with a disability for example). Because what is to be valued is the ability of a person to choose different functionings in order to pursue her own path or life goals, it may be better (when feasible) to measure poverty or other forms of deprivation directly in terms of those capabilities than in terms of the resources at a person’s disposal.

Sen also discussed the concept of human rights, and its link to funtionings and capabilities. Sen is sympathetic to the discourse of human rights, but he suggests that they should be seen primarily as ethical demands, rather than legal commands. Human rights imply obligations, some perfect, some imperfect, on the part of societies as well as individuals, in order to ensure that human rights can be exercised by all. The specific contents of human rights, however, is a matter of discussion (or public reasoning) and the understanding of the requirements of a human rights approach may indeed differ between societies, even if the concept of human rights should not (in much the same way, various utilitarian theories may differ in terms of what utility consists in, and how it should be maximized, but these theories still share the utilitarian framework). Sen does not see contradictions between the human rights and capabilities approaches, because human rights can be invoked as ethical claims in order to facilitate the expansion of the capability set of the poor and others facing various forms of disadvantage.

Sen also provides interesting responses to two traditional critiques of the language of human rights: the institutionalization and feasibility critiques. The institutionalization critique refers to the need to have obligations that exactly correspond to each of the human rights, so that a corresponding duty on the part of an agent (which can include the state) can be identified for each right that is claimed. Sen deals with this objection by distinguishing perfect from imperfect obligations, and by noting that even for civil and political rights, the implementation of such rights also involves imperfect obligations. This is essentially pointing to the fact that an exact correspondence between rights and duties is not encountered even for rights that are considered as belonging to a set of fundamental liberties (think of basic civic and political rights such as the right to vote).

The feasibility critique, relates to the fact that the ability to implement specific economic, social and cultural rights in some societies remains limited, say for budgetary or administrative capacity reasons. This is what I was alluding to earlier. While it is true that implementation may be a challenge in many countries, when human rights are seen as aspirational, the aspiration that they represent and the call to action that they imply remain valid. At the same time, not all aspirations need to be recognized as human rights (the risk of an inflation of rights mentioned earlier), and claims to the status of human rights need to sustain public scrutiny and public reasoning before validation.

While not all may share Sen’s views on human rights, they do seem sensible and practical.

Rotarian Economist Call for Briefs and Papers

by Quentin Wodon

The Rotarian Economist blog was launched on World Polio Day in October 2014. The blog discusses challenges and opportunities encountered by Interact, Rotaract, and Rotary clubs, as well as other service clubs. It also features stories about service work and analysis of sometimes complex issues related to poverty reduction and development. This includes discussions about priority areas for Rotary International such as promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, saving mothers and children, supporting education, growing local economies, and (of course) eradicating polio. The hope is that the blog and the resources posted on this website will be useful to Rotarians worldwide, as well as to others interested in service work and development.

A briefs and working papers series will soon be launched on the Rotarian Economist blog and website. This may be an opportunity for readers of the blog to feature their project, initiative, or analysis. Briefs and working papers may be submitted by Interactors, Rotaractors, and Rotarians, as well as by others interested in nonprofit service and development work. For example, great projects by NGOs could be featured even if they have not received any support from Rotary.

This initiative will not duplicate tools such as Rotary Showcase where Rotary projects can be listed with a brief description (typically a paragraph) and basic project and contact information. The idea is rather to provide a space for more in-depth analysis of service projects and development issues through briefs (about 4 pages single spaced in length) and working papers (typically 12-30 pages single-spaced; please use Times New Roman font 12 for both briefs and papers).

The series will welcome briefs and working papers on service projects as well as  thematic issues – especially in the areas of focus of The Rotary Foundation. For service projects, authors should first explain the focus area of the project typically with a few links to the literature on that area (these links to the literature are more important for working papers than for briefs). The following sections of the brief or working paper should describe the project not only generally but also with a focus on what makes it especially innovative or interesting. If quantitative or qualitative data on a project’s impact are available, these should be included. The brief or working paper should also have a conclusion and a list of references.

For work on thematic issues, the briefs or working papers should provide insights or analysis about a specific issue related to service or development work, as academic or professional papers and knowledge briefs would do. This could be an issue related to the management of service clubs, their growth, and the challenges they face. It could also be an issue related to development programs and policies, again ideally with a focus on the areas of intervention of The Rotary Foundation.

The series will be indexed with contents aggregators, and many of the briefs/papers will be announced on the Rotarian Economist blog with a post summarizing the key findings from the work. For briefs and papers on specific service projects, it is a good idea to provide one or more photos.

If you would like to submit a brief or working paper for this initiative, please send me an email through the Contact Me page.  Thank you!