Development, Human Rights, and Human Capabilities: The Political Divide

Birdsall, William F. 2014. "Development, Human Rights, and Human Capabilities: The Political Divide." Journal of Human Rights 13(1): 1-21.

The human rights approach and the capability approach (CA) are significant development strategies. CA proponents devote extensive attention to the relationship between human rights and capabilities yet give them no significant role in CA theory. While the CA maintains rights and capabilities are distinct, it maintains they can reinforce each other in advancing human development and human rights. This article argues the attention given to human rights by the CA is because the two are rival strategies in development space. This rivalry arises out of the extensive commonalties of entitlements, norms, vision, and rhetoric shared by human rights and capabilities. Their competition as development strategies intensified in the first decade of the twenty-first century with their increased institutionalization, exemplified by the United Nations Development Programme’s incorporating both approaches in its programs. The assertion they can reinforce each other, lacking empirical foundation, can only be seen as a hypothesis. A counterhypothesis is proposed that there is little prospect they can reinforce each other as they face an unbridgeable political divide derived from the experiential foundation of human rights in the realm of political power and the philosophical foundation of the CA in the realm of public policy. Human rights are practice seeking to be put into theory; the CA is theory seeking to be put into practice. The article concludes that both hypotheses need to be investigated through empirical social science research.

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