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The Human Rights and Development Debate: An Overview

The Human Rights and Development Debate:

An Overview

Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

9 November 2015

Generally speaking, both human rights and economic development are viewed as goods. However, are they mutually reinforcing or conflicting goods? What is the interrelationship of human rights and general development? How do they potentially reinforce each other and where are areas they might conflict? Such questions are key topics within the human rights and development discourse. The following essay offers an introductory overview of the debate.

“You must eat before you vote!” (Osinbajo and Ajayi 1994). With that bold declaration, Mahatir Mohamed, then the Prime Minister of Malaysia, strongly asserted one side of the development versus human rights debate. Essentially, the debate revolves around whether economic development can be effectively pursued while at the same time respecting the rights of citizens.

Mahatir, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, South Koreas Park Chung-Hee and others – generally from the Global South – have suggest that certain rights, by and large falling within the United Nations (UN) 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), may need to be curtailed since they may be inimical to generating economic development required to escape debilitating poverty and terrible deprivation. Only when poverty has been overcome, it is suggested, will human rights be effectively realized.

In contrast, scholars such as Amartya Sen and Jack Donnelly (among others) argue that there can be no economic development without a concomitant commitment to all human rights; basically, human rights are indivisible. For Sen, freedom of expression and democratic governance support economic development because they enable people to articulate their economic and general needs (Sen 1999: 91). According to Donnelly, development and human rights must always be seen and approached as fundamentally complementary and mutually reinforcing. While small sacrifices may be required – and only within very specific, yet highly conditional, instances – Donnelly (1989) suggests that the categorical trade-offs propounded by many developing states and leaders are not merely unnecessary but often actually quite harmful to both development and human rights.

The contentious development and human rights debate arose in the 1950s and 1960s, as many states from the Global South broke free from the oppressive shackles of colonialism. Upon independence, many of these states lagged considerably behind much of the world in terms of socio-economic development; consequently, a paramount objective became the pursuit of rapid growth and development (Englebert 2000; Losch 1990). Additionally, the starkly differing perspectives of the respective Cold War combatants – the United States (US) and the USSR – saw civil and political rights placed in direct ideological opposition to economic, social, and cultural rights (Buergenthal 1997). Since then, and particularly as a result of the economic success generated by many authoritarian, repressive East Asian states, including Taiwan, China, Singapore, Indonesia, and South Korea, the debate has remained a constant feature within the international development and human rights discourse.

The rapid economic development of East Asian states has provided them the confidence, if not credibility, according to some, to challenge the assumed superiority and supposed moral authority of the West (Ghai 1999). Whereas Western conceptions of rights largely champion civil and political rights, especially democracy and individual liberties, many of the rapidly developing East Asian states have espoused a far different approach. For many East Asian states, unique aspects of their culture are crucial factors in making their respective societies successful. This understanding, broadly emanating from a Confucian ethical foundation, is based on consensus-seeking, communitarian ideals, diligence and a strong work ethic, and supports the unquestioned obedience to authority, thus contradicting the preeminence with which individual liberties and democracy are held by the West. These Asian values and Confucian ethics are often interpreted as strengths and frequently suggested as amongst the fundamental reasons for the rapid rise of East Asian states (Turner and Hulme 1997: 92; Zakaria and Yew 1994).

In addition to these values and ethics, East Asian states and leaders also assert that an effective developmental state must: establish stability, order, and discipline to deal with societal or military rebels or religious and other extremists; curb press freedoms to avoid fanning racial tensions or exacerbating social divisions; and use strict laws to break the power of entrenched interests (Tay 1995).

Furthermore, it is claimed that economic development must first be achieved in order to effectively implement human rights. In order for a state to most efficiently provide various rights – such as education, healthcare, and other important social welfare provisions – a state requires a large, steady GNP. Importantly, civil and political rights are characterized as stifling the potential for growth and investment; for example, freedoms associated with trade unions may see the implementation of inefficient benefits, while democracy and elections see elected officials pursue policies for short-run political expediency rather than long-term growth. Moreover, authoritarian states are viewed as more effective in providing the stability and durability that inspires confidence in investors (Haggard, MacIntyre, and Tiede 2007; Przeworski and Limongi 1993; Zakaria and Yew 1994).   

Frey and Al-Mansour’s (1994) analysis of the influences on states’ democratic practices provides useful empirical insight into the development and human rights debate. Concerned with whether development can better promote good democratic practices, Frey and Al-Mansour theorize that economic development is conducive to the emergence and maintenance of political democracy. Specific mechanisms outlined include the view that economic development fosters wealth, growth in the middle class, increased literacy, and a greater utilization of media. Allegedly, these developments empower individuals and groups, increase tolerance, and reduce class tensions, while giving rise to large numbers of organizations that encourage positive political participation. Analyzing the effects of economic development on democracy in 87 countries during two different time periods, 1973 and 1989, Frey and Al-Mansour find that economic development fosters democracy, thus offering at least some support to East Asian states’ contentions regarding the need to immediately pursue economic development.

South Korea is distinguished as a state that achieved phenomenal, unprecedented economic growth while at the same time curtailing many rights. It produced broad, positive developmental outcomes, with large economic growth, egalitarian rural development, export-led and labor-intensive industrial development, and a vast expansion in the education of the general population. At the same time, throughout its upward trajectory, South Korea was also a harshly repressive dictatorship, one within which many civil and political liberties were severely curtailed (Donnelly 1999). Park Chung-Hee promoted high-speed industrialization, working on the theory that if you deliver growth and improved living standards, people will willingly forego civil and political liberties (Turner and Hulme 1997: 61). While Park declared that an authoritarian approach was required both to pursue rapid development (recall that South Korea was devastated by harsh Japanese colonialism and the brutal Korean War) and due to national security (related to the considerable threat from the communist North), Donnelly (1989) firmly counters these claims.  

Donnelly’s (1989) discussion of Korea and other developing states neatly, yet adamantly, outlines how while repression and growth can be compatible, there is no firm conclusion that harsh repression is a prerequisite for growth – a subtle, but extremely vital, distinction. Donnelly also questions whether state repression can legitimately be said to have made a positive contribution to development, instead asking if greater development could not have been achieved with a better human rights record.

While much attention has been given to the strict, authoritarian practices utilized by rapidly developing East Asian states, one aspect often overlooked in their rapid rise has been the collection of specific economic policies and circumstances leading to their economic success. These policies include: considerable amounts of foreign aid, openness to competition, the use of international markets, public provisions of incentives for investment and export, a high level of literacy and schooling for the population, successful land reforms, and other social opportunities widening the participation in the process of economic expansion (Chang 2005; Sen 1999). Within this context, Sen suggests that to focus solely on their authoritarian streak is shortsighted. Rather, there is no reason at all to assume that many of these economic policies are inconsistent with greater democracy or had to be forcibly implemented and sustained by elements of authoritarianism. In actuality, there is evidence to show that what is needed for generating faster economic growth is a friendlier economic climate rather than a harsher political system (Sen 1999).

The fact that many repressive, authoritarian states in East Asia have been economically successful also crucially overlooks the fact that many more repressive, authoritarian states around the world have been abject economic failures, such as Ethiopia, the former Zaire, Uganda, Chad, and Myanmar (Sen 1999). Furthermore, the majority of the studies promoting the economic success of authoritarian, repressive states have utilized very selective and limited information, rather than focusing on any general statistical testing of the wide-ranging data that are available. Finally, a glance at the social-democratic welfare states of Scandinavia and Western Europe – with their respectively long traditions of strong economic development and concomitant respect for human rights – seriously calls into question East Asian claims of the incompatibility of development and rights (Howard 1995).

Notably, democracy has long remained a key feature of debate within the development and human rights discourse, with scholars analyzing the relationship between democracy and development.

On the one hand, democracy is said to protect property rights and safeguard the private sphere, thus stimulating investment and inducing growth. Individuals feel safer investing in a democracy, since within autocracies no one can “force” an autocrat from reneging. The snag, however, is that democracies also equalize the right to influence the allocation of resources; thus the poor - via the state - can expropriate riches and reduce growth. Importantly, the legitimacy of this latter point is questionable since it skirts the vital fact that the poor and rich do not have equal opportunities or capabilities to influence policymakers. Mainstream political analyses have consistently found that control of government and policy is very narrowly concentrated at the peak of the income scale, with the large majority “down below” effectively disenfranchised (Chomsky 2013).

Democracy may also reduce investment and growth, since it unleashes pressure for immediate consumption. It is thought that these pressures must be quelled by an iron fist; thus, dictatorships are better able to force savings and launch growth. After reviewing previous empirical analyses of the development and rights debate, Przeworski and Limongi (1993) acknowledge that, “we still do not know whether democracy fosters or hinders economic growth.”

Baum and Lake (2003) offer a useful contribution to the debate by suggesting that most studies focusing on the association between development and democracy fail to develop an adequate political theory of growth and also that previous statistical models are mis-specified. Nearly all studies begin from a neoclassical growth equation and simply add a democracy variable, thus likely underestimating the total effect of democracy on growth. Specifically, there are important indirect effects of democracy on growth manifested through public health and education. Utilizing a two-equation recursive system of regressions, and first estimating the effects of democracy on life expectancy and secondary education and then estimating the effects of democracy and these human capital indicators on growth, Baum and Lake find that the effect of democracy on economic growth is subtle, indirect, and contingent on levels of development. Crucially, once democracy’s indirect effects are included, greater democracy always improves growth; in relatively poor countries, there are indirect and positive effects for democracy on growth through life expectancy, while in non-poor countries there are indirect and positive effects of democracy on growth through secondary enrollment ratios (Baum and Lake 2003).

For Sen (1999), the fact that respecting rights and liberties, such as democracy, cannot conclusively be shown to promote economic growth does not provide a strong or valid argument for curtailing rights, since democracy and political liberty are important in and of themselves. Furthermore, within Sen’s increasingly accepted understanding of development, economic development and human rights must remain compatible. Going beyond the narrow confines of simple economic development, Sen’s approach towards development extends utmost significance to the concept of freedom, as well as economic and social security (Sen 1999). In this case, any understanding of development must be compatible with the respect of human rights, as development basically constitutes freedom, across a wide range of conceptions.

Sen’s famous quote, “no democracy has ever suffered a great famine” (1999: 180-181), offers another valuable illustration of how development and human rights remain compatible and are fundamentally related. Recall that Sen’s understanding of development incorporates not only freedom, but also economic and social security. Especially important facets of these latter concepts include the right to health and the right to food. According to Sen, throughout history famines have been avoided in democratic states because these states’ promotion of political and civil rights afford people the opportunity to draw forceful attention to their general needs and to demand appropriate public action, through voting, criticizing, protesting, and the like. Authoritarian states, which curtail democracy and free press, sustain much less pressure to respond to the acute suffering of their people and can therefore continue with faulty policies. Sen’s useful discussion of many of the great famines within recent history – including those in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, China, the former USSR, and North Korea – helps emphasize the fundamental relationship between democracy, civil liberties, and widespread famine and hunger (Sen 1999).

Both human rights and economic development are characterized as goods. Their interrelationship, particularly in terms of their possible mutual reinforcement or potential conflict, remains a topic of much analysis and great debate.

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