A Human Rights-Based Approach to Development

An essential skill in any Salvadoran household is making good beans. The evidence is everywhere: grocery stores feature small mountains of dry beans. Spoonfuls of fragrant beans are served at every corner comedor. My Spanish verb lesson separates “cocinar frijoles” (to cook beans) from “cocinar desayuno, almuerzo, y cena” (to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Caving to the pressure, I tried my hand at making my first pot of beans last weekend—but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Last week on the One Program at a Time blog, we discussed the phenomenon of forced displacement by violence and why there’s a need for community development work in El Salvador and Central America. (Read it here.) This week’s post will delve into our human rights-based approach to community development—and what it takes to make great beans.

In any bean-making operation, there are two major roles: the bean-cooker and the bean-eater. For example, in many families, the mother cooks beans for her children to eat. Human rights-based development is divided into similar roles: duty-bearers and rights-holders. Duty-bearers have a responsibility to provide for certain rights. Rights-holders deserve to lay claim to certain rights. These two roles appear at all levels of society, and a person can take on different roles depending on the situation. (Jonsson, 2004).

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Global Eyes Media


For example, parents have a duty to feed their children. Children have a right to be fed. But what if parents don’t have access to a well-stocked grocery store? In that sense, parents are also rights-holders. They deserve to have access to the means to feed their families. The government, then, has a duty to develop appropriate infrastructure so grocery stores can receive supplies.

At Cristosal, we never replace rights-holders or duty-bearers in their rightful roles. Doing so may seem easier or faster, but it doesn’t lead to empowerment or long-term change. We don’t assume to know what communities need; we empower rights-holders to make their own analyses and decisions. We also don’t substitute duty-bearers in fulfilling rights. A human rights-based approach shifts the people participating in a development program from pitiable objects of charity to empowered subjects of human rights.

Back to my bean-cooking experiment: one only needs to Google “dry beans” to discover a host of opinions about the best way to make beans. Overnight soak, hot soak, quick soak—there is much to debate. Something everyone agrees on, however, is that the process and the final product are both important.

The same is true in development work. Human rights principles dictate good processes, while human rights standards provide guidelines for final products. Examples of important principles include non-discrimination and inclusion. (Jonsson, 2004). Some well-known human rights standards are articulated in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—things like “ensure quality education for all” and “end hunger” (United Nations, 2017).

Without good principles, even positive results may be unsustainable; but without standards, processes lack vision (Jonsson, 2004). If you devalue the bean-cooking process, your end result may be edible, but not worth repeating or sharing. On the other hand, who would go to the trouble of perfecting a bean recipe if the end result was less than delicious?

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Global Eyes Media


A human rights-based approach to community development places value on many different moving parts, but complex problems call for multifaceted solutions. And maybe it’s not so complicated after all: there are duty-bearers (bean-makers) and rights-holders (bean-eaters), both engaged in a development process (guided by human rights principles) to effect desirable outcomes (defined by human rights standards).

Cristosal’s community development work has implications beyond the individual community level. The Salvadoran government, the principle duty-bearer in relation to forced displacement by violence, does not currently recognize internal displacement as a problem. This passivity was denounced earlier this month by a group of civil society organizations, including Cristosal, in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The state’s failure to recognize forced displacement by violence gives our community development work an important context. Our work produces desirable results for the communities we engage with, but the way we partner with citizens and communities to build positive environments also provides a valuable model for addressing the root causes of forced displacement by violence.

Cristosal’s Community Development Director Mauricio Quijano believes the government will one day recognize forced displacement by violence. Mauricio says, “The community is an important part of the model we could provide to the government to take action.” Check back next week to hear more from Mauricio, and see the rights-based approach in action in one of our recent community development projects.

Support our innovative community development model at www.cristosal.org/give.


Jonsson, Urban. A Human Rights Based Approach to Programming. 2004.

United Nations. “Sustainable Development Goals.” United Nations, www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals. Accessed 10 Sept. 2017.


About the Author: Hannah Nelson moved to San Salvador one month ago. She enjoys sharing new recipes with friends and family. 

Hannah Rose Nelson