A Rights-Centric Approach to the SDGs

Based on the reading:

Langford, M. (2010). A poverty of rights: six ways to fix the MDGs. IDS bulletin, 41(1), 83-91.

In this paper, Langford described the inadequacy of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and suggested ways in which a refocus on, and a normative framework based on, human rights could, in his words, “fix the MDGs.” Before I reflect on the substance of his writing, I wish to express how heartened I am that Langford, and presumably others like him, have chosen to work with the enterprise of the MDGs instead of abandoning it all together.

While the MDGs might appear too distant from the marginalised peoples around the world or too abstract and general for local policymakers and civil society organisations, I think there is merit in sustaining the discourse on “development goals” –

What is the nature of development we desire? How do we envision our individual societies 15 years from now? What might be the small steps in between?

– and a need to safeguard ideas of global commitment and shared futures.

Of course, to sustain a discourse and to safeguard ideas need not mean paying lip-service or exaggerating the progress made. On the contrary, critical (as opposed to superficial, cynical or skeptical) evaluations, alongside genuine and humble acknowledgements of the merits and demerits of the existing state of affairs, are what promote better discourse and make ideas relevant. Thus, Langford’s decision to work with and critically evaluate the MDGs plays a part in keeping the discourse on “development goals” relevant and reminding the audience of the ideals of the Millennium Declaration (MD).

That said, the existing Targets-based approach to operationalising global commitment and shared ideals might not work forever. It might not work for every society too. Therefore, critical evaluations of the MDGs must go beyond the MDGs themselves and address potential limitations or untapped potential in the existing paradigm.

In this paper, Langford suggests that a refocus on human rights could improve future development goals in the following aspects: the representativeness and relevance of selected targets (1), the customisability of the targets to individual societies (4), the accountability of policymakers to their domestic populations (especially those most in need) (6), and in integrating the human rights-centric ideals of the MD (2, 3, 5).

I am especially convinced that development goals must be not be formulated in a policy space void of normative guidance. This is not to say that economic growth, which is often pursued in and of itself without the need for suasion based on normative guidance, cannot occur. Most, if not all, assume that economic development has to be good. Most probably also assume that a rising tide lifts all boats or that redistribution would take place and that is where a rights-centric approach is most relevant. The consideration of development goals within normative frameworks – best if these have themselves been arrived at through consultation and consensus with civil society at large – give policymakers a degree of gravitas and this connectedness to those they (claim to) serve that an unquestioning pursuit of economic progress cannot replicate.

Reflecting on Singapore, I can’t quite decide how to encourage a more rights-centric approach to policymaking, or how this government fares, at all. Perhaps, that is where I should begin – to clarify the normative frameworks and values that this society might agree on. And even then, there will be minorities. For those who hold alternative values and / or are deliberately marginalised, what rights should they be accorded, and by whom? I am reminded of “rights to the city”, a concept we briefly covered in our last session, and Langford’s example of the effectiveness of judicial enforcement of socioeconomic rights in Latin American and South Asian societies. There’s a lot to think about, but I’m happy I’m starting somewhere.

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