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close this book4th Report on the World Nutrition Situation - Nutrition throughout the Life Cycle (ACC/SCN, 2000, 138 p.)
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View the document4.1 The Relevance of Nutrition for Development
View the document4.2 The Implications of Some Global Phenomena for Nutrition
View the document4.3 The Ascent of Human Rights in Development
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4.3 The Ascent of Human Rights in Development

Development has to do with people, but the precise role of people in development has been debated in philosophy and social and political science for several hundred years. After World War II, with the establishment of the United Nations and the adoption of the UN Human Rights Declaration, the idea that the main objective of development should be human well being became more acceptable.

According to both capitalist and socialist perspectives, the key to such development was thought to be essentially faster economic growth, with the assumption that the economic growth would automatically result in human development in the short run. There is now a consensus that, although economic growth is crucial for sustainable improvements in human welfare, it is not a sufficient condition. Moreover, there is agreement that development is not solely economic growth or human development - it is both.37 One objective is not a simple function of the other. The two are related in a complex manner.

Human development expresses itself in human capabilities. In the 1996 Human Development Report, UNDP defines the three most important human capabilities as (1) the capability to be well nourished and healthy, (2) the capability for healthy reproduction, and (3) the capability to be educated and knowledgeable.46 In a broader sense human development can be seen as enlarging people’s choices (see Box 4.3).

BOX 4.3

New Approaches to Measuring Poverty and Development

There are a number of approaches to defining and measuring poverty. The traditional model is based on assessing household income or total consumption in relation to a poverty line, which in turn is related to the ability to purchase a basket of foods that meets a given energy consumption level. More recent approaches assess poverty in asocial deprivation context - a formulation closely related to the concept of human rights. The social deprivation approach takes at least three forms: (1) a human poverty approach, (2) a social exclusion approach, and (3) a participatory approach. UNDP’s human poverty approach argues that “because income is not the sum total of human lives, a lack of it cannot be the sum total of human deprivation” (p. 25).37 The human poverty approach focuses on a lack of access to education, income, and longevity. It is closely related to the social exclusion and participatory approaches. The social exclusion approach focuses on the lack of resources required to participate in activities and enjoy living standards that are customary or widely accepted in a society. The participatory approach looks for local definitions and perceptions of poverty and often serves to broaden the social exclusion approach by identifying exclusion concepts that have evolved in the community in question.47

Broader definitions and measures of poverty have also become common currency in the World Bank over the past decade. Nevertheless, indicators of income poverty remain dominant in poverty assessments, and until recently the focus of country assistance strategies was still squarely on improving economic growth rates and per capita incomes. A recent assessment of World Bank performance in support of poverty reduction commits the bank to the set of targets embodied in the International Development Goals, developed in partnership with developing countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and UN agencies.35 One indicator for the goal of reducing extreme poverty by half is preschool underweight. Improving nutritional status is of course also an important factor in achieving some of the other goals, such as reducing infant and child mortality. Although there are issues regarding the interpretation and application of the IDGs, the broad consensus around these goals and indicators is significant and creates an opportunity to ensure greater attention to nutrition in poverty assessments and strategies.

The failure of economic growth approaches on their own to build human capabilities has opened the door for more normative arguments in development. The number of global conferences, including the International Conference on Nutrition (1992), reflects such a normative basis. In all of these conferences goals were agreed upon. These goals were not primarily based on traditional economic arguments, but rather on normative arguments. They thus represented “global moral minima” that entailed commitments or promises but not obligations.

The United Nations has a normative foundation, explicitly expressed in both the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This fact, however, was not appreciated by many development scholars and practitioners, not even within the UN itself. With the end of the Cold War and the criticism of economic growth theories, a human rights approach to development could be revived as a part of UN reform, which started in 1997.

The subject of nutrition as a human right has been debated for years. At least in the case of children, adequate nutrition is enshrined as a human right in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a convention ratified by all countries in the world except Somalia and the United States. The principle of the “best interest of the child” ensures that adequate nutrition is one of the rights of the child.

Human rights express relationships between subjects with claims or rights and objects with duties or obligations. Essentially, human rights are the relationships between claim-holders and duty-bearers.48 Bearers have a duty to respect, protect, facilitate, and fulfill the rights of the claim-holders. Claimants have valid claims. Bearers and claimants can be the international community, national and local governments, NGOs, communities, families, households, and parents.

For countries that have ratified human rights covenants and conventions, the issue is no longer one of promises, but of legal obligations. UN programmes and projects should therefore aim at building and strengthening the capacity of governments and other duty-bearers to meet their obligations. Seen from this perspective, there is no conflict between human rights and “development.” A human rights approach represents a normative approach to development.

One of the most significant paradigm shifts embodied in a human rights approach is that people who are poor are no longer seen as passive recipients of transfers, but rather as subjects of their own actions. An important purpose of development cooperation is then to improve the capabilities, including responsibility, motivation, authority, and resources, of the duty-bearer to meet nutrition-related obligations. The next major challenge for the nutrition community is to operationalize the use of rights-based principles as a guide to nutrition programming. The 1999 ACC/SCN symposium on human rights and nutrition made progress in this regard.48 Several examples of the value of rights-based approaches to nutrition programming were presented at that meeting, one of which - related to breast-feeding - is reproduced in Table 4.2.

TABLE 4.2: Breastfeeding rights: Duties and obligations at different levels of society

Duty or obligation





To understand that breastfeeding is best for both boys and girls

To assist in the promotion of breastfeeding

To constantly promote breastfeeding


To avoid buying breast-milk substitutes

To inform people about the importance of breastfeeding

To protect people against misinformation


To assist in household work during lactation

To assist in reducing the workload of lactating mothers

To provide basic mother and child health care


To ensure that the lactating mother eats well and gets sufficient rest

To provide food to poor households with lactating mothers

To ensure household food security

Source: 49.