Putting human rights at the centre of our approach

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Habibul Haque

On the eve of Human Rights Day, Tom Palakudiyil, WaterAid’s Regional Director for South Asia, looks at the evolution of WaterAid’s approach to a point where human rights are central to our work and a rights-based approach essential to achieving our vision.

Making water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services accessible to poor and marginalised people was WaterAid’s founding vision, and has remained its goal and focus throughout its 35-year journey. What has changed over time, however, is the organisation’s understanding of how to work towards the realisation of this goal as contexts change and new opportunities and challenges arise.

Understanding WaterAid’s role

In WaterAid’s early years, sector actors saw WASH poverty as primarily a technical issue – the absence of wells, taps, and toilets. The effective response to such WASH needs not being met would be to make these facilities available. Investing in more taps and toilets therefore became the primary focus of WaterAid’s programme intervention.

Although these micro-level interventions brought significant changes in the communities where WaterAid worked, it became clear that addressing the WASH needs of the many other communities in a country would require broader engagement with the whole sector through contributing to the development and reforms of policies and guidelines. Thus policy, advocacy, and campaigning became an equal focus to investing in WASH facilities on the ground.

However, absence of good policies and guidelines was not the only limitation to effective delivery of WASH services. Other ‘blockages’ got in the way, such as: inadequate finances; inadequate skills to manage these finances and develop realistic plans; and inadequate systems for effective monitoring and for coordination. Hence ‘sector strengthening’ to remove these blockages became an integral part of WaterAid’s work. This shifted our approach from focusing on incremental increases in user numbers to the systemic change that will pave the way for sustained universal access.

A 2014 review of our efforts to mainstream equity and inclusion pointed out that sustained access to WASH services critically depended on the continued presence of the benevolent external agent. The review recommended that the next phase in the WaterAid journey should be shifting the focus from meeting the WASH needs of marginalised people through service delivery to empowering communities to recognise these services as their rights and demand them. The 2010 UN resolution recognising water and sanitation as human rights provided an added impetus to make this shift and integrate a rights-based approach into programmes.

From access to empowerment: rights-based approach

Underlying the rights-based approach is the recognition that, beyond technical and financial factors, the power relations in a community are critical to whether basic rights such as those to education, food and WASH are respected. That is, people are excluded from WASH (or any other basic) facilities primarily because of a lack of power rather than a lack of resources. Thus, even in a water-scarce village in a drought-prone area, a rich farmer is often able to irrigate his land, because, in addition to the financial resources for wells and pumps, he also has the power within the community to appropriate a disproportionate share of the available water.

Therefore, a core feature of the rights-based approach is facilitating a process whereby the ‘right holders’ (citizens) are empowered to hold the ‘duty bearers’ (state or other service providers) accountable to honour their human rights and legal entitlements.

The road to empowerment

Empowering the excluded starts with gradually increasing access to information. This is transformed into knowledge (when the marginalised people internalise the information and apply it to themselves and their own situations), and then through analysis (when they start asking the question ‘why?’) into true awareness. The awareness is the foundation for a process of empowerment that helps the marginalised people to develop the ability to raise their voices, and finally to be strong enough to actually influence or effect change.

For the duty bearers to become accountable also requires a process of change. For them, the stages towards ‘accountability’ include an increase in accessibility, greater transparency, prompter responsiveness, and a greater willingness to sanction those who do not fulfil their duties to marginalised people and other citizens.

The rights-based approach would therefore involve: (i) empowering the excluded so they can change power balances in regards to the power holders; (ii) creating an environment of accountability among duty bearers and service providers; and (iii) working to embed this in the ‘system’.

An integral component of our Programmatic Approach

The progression from an exclusively service delivery approach to one focusing also on the systemic change that will guarantee that these services are delivered equitably and sustainably is the ultimate goal of WaterAid’s Programmatic Approach. This Approach captures the evolution of WaterAid’s role and guides its programmes to achieve universal access to WASH by 2030.

The insights of the rights-based approach, especially the importance it places on processes that promote both the responsiveness of duty bearers to deliver and the empowerment of the rights holders to hold the duty bearers accountable, are indispensable to a Programmatic Approach. They are therefore also critical to putting WaterAid’s Global Strategy into action, especially the commitment to ‘addressing inequalities as well as tackling the underlying causes of these inequalities’. Hence, embedding the insights of a rights-based approach is an integral part of WaterAid’s journey to realising its vision.

Two implications

There are two practical implications of the evolving understanding of WaterAid’s role to highlight. One is a shift in its image from being a donor and provider of resources to being a facilitator and catalyst with both government and non-government partners. The other, in the Sustainable Development Goals era, is the importance of collaboration with other actors who also seek to address the underlying causes of extreme poverty by altering the power relations preventing poor and powerless people from demanding their rights to basic services.

Both have an important bearing on WaterAid’s effectiveness in contributing to the ‘eradication of extreme poverty’ and ‘leaving no one behind’.