PPIW Poverty Series: A Human Rights Approach to Tackling Poverty

Poverty has an adhuman-rights-434-244-400x275verse and corrosive impact on people’s fundamental interests, interests that are the subject matter of human rights. Discrimination, social exclusion and inadequate provision of basic goods and services are features of poverty and, at the same time, violations of human rights. Human rights address aspects of a person’s lived experience adversely affected by poverty, providing guarantees to entitlements in areas such as housing, education, health and social care. A Human Rights Approach (HRA) is rooted in the legal obligations freely accepted by States to give effect to human rights set out in international treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In Wales these obligations extend to the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales.

A key feature of a HRA is the explicit incorporation of international human rights standards as an aspect of policy development. Vague incantations of “human rights”, fairness, dignity or social justice as indeterminate objectives of social policy are insufficient. Policy processes and outcome frameworks should be informed by human rights. In practice a HRA requires outcome indicators (targets and benchmarks) and structural indicators (e.g. human rights legislation, training for officials) to ensure a human rights focus, as well as processes that embed human rights in policy development and implementation (e.g. impact assessment, including resource analysis, consultation with those living in poverty), and mechanisms for accountability (e.g. public or Parliamentary scrutiny, processes for legal or administrative challenge).

Does a HRA work? The evidence is diffuse but tends to confirm a stronger focus on addressing basic human need through public policy, tackling discrimination, targeted resource allocation and participation of previously excluded groups, leading – in some cases – to better outcomes. However, the application of human rights across a vast range of policy areas, from international development to community services, and variation in research methodologies and objectives, makes generalisation about the efficiency of a HRA to tackle poverty in the context of devolved policy highly problematic. In addition, there is a scarcity of studies that focus on the impact of a HRA in relatively rich countries like the UK, especially at devolved level. The policy community in Wales would benefit from evaluative analysis of policy or projects that directly or indirectly address human rights implementation in areas such as housing, education and healthcare, focusing on ‘traditional’ outcome indicators but also on qualitative indicators to reflect how people experience poverty.

Useful references 

  • British Institute of Human Rights, Human Rights in Healthcare, BIHR, 2008
  • Butler, F., Improving Public Services; Using a Human Rights Approach, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2005
  • Chandler et al, Human Rights Measurement Framework: Prototype panels, indicator set and evidence base, 2011, EHRC
  • Donald et al, Evaluating the Impact of Selected Cases under the Human Rights Act on Public Services Provision, Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2009
  • Hearne, R. and Kenna, P., ‘Using the Human Rights Based Approach to Tackle Housing Deprivation in an Irish Urban Housing Estate’, Journal of Human Rights Practice Vo.6 Number 1, 2014
  • International Center for Research on Women, A Rights-based Approach to Realizing the Economic and Social Rights of Poor and Marginalized Women (Undated)
  • Overseas Development Institute, What can we do with a rights based approach to development?, ODI, 1999 ODI
  • UN Principles and Guidelines for a Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategies, UN, 2006


About the author: Dr Simon Hoffman is an Associate Professor of Law and Criminology at Swansea University. His research is on human rights, with a focus on economic and social rights, especially how these are implemented and given effect in political devolution and multi-level governance.


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