African Feminist Organising and the Right to Development

The right to development presents a key opportunity for African feminist organising on sexual rights in multilateral spaces. Unlike the flattened neoliberal models of development often proffered by our governments, development under this framework is understood to be a “a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom”. Development is envisioned as occurring in the best interests of the collective an at a municipal and international level, is meant to to be people centred and to occur with a built in feedback loop with one of the key indicators being wellbeing. The right to development is also concerned with collective and individual agency, recognising the right to self-determination as an integral component of the right – including the right to select appropriate economic, social, and cultural models, to rage against the Neo-imperialist machine, to disarm, and the right to freely dispose of natural resources. The need for States to create an enabling environment for this process of development, and for the creation of a new economic order is stated explicity. This idea of agency coupled with overtly politicised understandings of development is markedly different from the current mainstream praxis of development, where development is something that happens to people without their consent or active participation, indeed some Pahuja and Eslava observe that “…billions of people [are] subjected everyday to developmental interventions.

‘Development under this framework is understood to be a “a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom”

The right to development is one of the few that has been primary articulated from the vantage point of the global South – in international (meaning United Nations level) law the right to development is most extensively articulated through the Declaration on the Right to Development which was adopted as a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly which is befitting. The right to development is a framework that overtly bridges the artificial divide between civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other. It aids in substantiating the claim that all human rights are indivisible, interlinked, and non-hierarchical and must be given equal attention. The declaration itself makes good use of the perambulatory paragraphs to sketch out the ideological bases of the right, before seeking to operationalise the politics through the subsequent articles.

The right to development is a clustered right, meaning that a number of other rights have to be attained and enjoyed in order to enjoy this right, and conversely that if a number of rights are violated then it too is violated. This unified framework has the potential to allow for decolonial, radical and intersectional approaches to the realisation of sexual rights and women’s rights which span all overarching categorisations of international human rights, which African women sorely need as the right to development cannot be enjoyed without either “sets” of rights. The right to development as articulated could provide an analytical entry point for African feminist engagement with international relations – including the diplomatic corps in domestic and multilateral spaces, and with international human rights law, pushing African governments to live up to liberatory ideals. That the right is most expansively articulated in a United Nations General Assembly Resolution has been used as ammunition by those States (entirely in the Global North) that would rather not recognise the right, as resolutions are not as binding as treaties.

African governments can be held up to the standards of the right to development at a regional level through the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.The right to development is recognised in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the first international human rights treaty to do so, under article 22 which reads as follows: 

1. All peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.

2. States shall have the duty, individually or collectively, to ensure the exercise of the right to development.

This right is therefore binding on all State parties to the African Charter, as any additional interpretations of the right emanating from other international human rights spaces including at the UN can be used to aid in the interpretation of this right as persuasive legal reasoning. This means that there is the opportunity to loop in international developments that our states have consented to at the regional level through the state reporting prowesses and indeed through other forms of lobbying and advocacy in African Union spaces, for national level enforcement. African feminists just need to be live to the conversations and the sorts of arguments formulated by state parties about our rights and challenge underlying ideological hindrances to social justice. A key opportunity for this work is to use the right to development to push for some of the most controversial sexual and reproductive rights on the continent including the right to abortion beyond the floor set by the Maputo protocol – helping to entrench and normalise the right to bodily autonomy as a human right standard and extending this right as a piggyback right on a number of other rights. Further, given the further narrowing of civil society space for women – queer women in particular on the grounds of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia – it would be interesting to challenge the prevailing interpretations of cultural rights and traditional values on the basis of the right to development. Article 8 of the declaration could be a starting point for such work – with States having made a commitment to implement a number of social and economic reforms with a view to “…eradicating all social injustices.” African feminists organising in these spheres and along those lines need to continuously put State representatives and commissioners of treaty monitoring bodies on the back foot by being able to craft international law and foreign policy arguments that are persuasive, technically and ideologically sound to challenge and counter flawed reasoning at source. 

Whilst the right to development presents particular opportunities when confronting and engaging African States, whether or not the right to development is a true right is contentious in diplomatic circles of the global North. This is the case for a number of reasons, one of which is a general bias towards political and civil rights as true human rights, with other categories considered ancillary despite a continuous spin within multilateral spaces about the indivisibility of rights. Further, the global North has some particular concerns about the ramifications of the recognition of a right to development, including concerns about Northern states potentially being required to pay reparations for colonialism and ongoing neo-colonialism to fund development work which is markedly different from the current international “aid” infrastructure which is an extension of the foreign policy objectives of governments of the global North (meaning it is fundamentally in the best interests of those States) and is largely coercive.

There are further concerns about the impact the international enforcement of the right to development could have on the economies of governments from the global North if they are indeed required to engage in technology transfers, and to deprioritise enabling the profiteering of a number of their industries through the reform of intellectual property laws relating to seed and medical technology, for example. Right to development discourse becomes particularly important in work to challenge neoliberal capitalism – including it’s effects on people and on the environment (therefore business and human rights, and climate change conversations amongst others), it is also important in challenging the coercive norms of aid conditionality, as well as certain manifestations of militarism and militarisation. The right to development is also a framework to address domination within human rights discourse as a systemic phenomenon, looking at some of the problems such as poverty as an international-collective problem, and not one of individual states. This framing is key.

An additional concern raised within certain circles of power and frequently articulated at the United National Human Rights Council – where resolutions on the right to development are frequently put to the vote as opposed to adopted by consensus, is that the Global South speaks about prioritising development, sustainable development, and the right to development as a means of getting out of meeting its civil and political rights obligations. That this a long standing concern is evident in the resolution as drafted, where continuous emphasis as if to provide assurance is made about the importance of civil and political rights and in the inclusion of article 10. Further, in terms of the source of law argument often put forward to undercut the right, the drafters of the right to development declaration see the source of the right in the UN Charter itself as well as the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

There is not yet an internationally (meaning United Nations level) binding treaty specifically on this right but this could be set to change, as the intergovernmental working group on the right to development has been tasked with drafting a treaty that will form the basis of state negotiations on the content of a right to development treaty.  It is hoped that a binding treaty will help in the effective operationalisation of this right which has been lagging. The start of the drafting process represents an opportunity for activists and advocates to lobby states about what to include int he text, about adopting the treaty, and about crafting meaningful strategies towards to attainment of social justice. 



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