Bottom-up definitions of human rights in ActionAid’s work on unpaid care

A recent ActionAid project on unpaid care shows how NGOs could move beyond human-rights based approaches focused on implementing international law, instead working with communities to develop new grassroots understandings of rights that might help to plug some of the gaps in the international human rights framework.

The adoption of a human rights-based approach (HRBA) at ActionAid transformed the non-governmental organisation’s structure, processes and priorities. Politically, the organisation moved from being one of the more conservative – focused on charitable provision of services – to one of the more radical in the international development sector.

However, the transition was not completely smooth. Tensions emerged between those who believed that the organisation should continue to deliver services, as this is what communities were asking for, and those who wanted to put more energy into advocating for governments to meet their obligations under international human rights law.

As more and more people with experience of activism and policy were hired, this reinforced the shift towards an understanding of the HRBA oriented around international law. But on the ground, service delivery continued to be a major component of the organisation’s work. It remained very difficult for staff to balance community demands for material improvements in their lives with the conviction that it was more sustainable and more equitable for governments to provide those services.

While I was still working with ActionAid, I carried out research into two projects that provide some insight into how ActionAid might tailor the HRBA to the particular challenges of programmatic interventions. One of those projects – Promoting rights in schools – involved what Sally Engle Merry calls ‘vernacularisation’: translating international rights so that communities felt that, in advocating for those rights, they were advocating for something they understood and genuinely believed in.

Another project – Making care visible – went even further. Instead of starting with the set of rights that have been recognised at international level, the project team started by talking to groups of women about their own priorities. They used concepts like dignity and equality to uncover and nurture discussion about the importance of care work and to encourage women to think about the things they wanted to advocate for.

Some of the priorities emerging from the project were already part of the international human rights framework, but many touched on issues that receive far too little attention in discussions of human rights. For example, the project was clear about the importance of collective responsibility for care work – ensuring that men and government bodies took on their fair share – as well as defending the individual rights of women not to be overburdened.

By talking about rights and unpaid care in this way, the project challenged a western-centric view of human rights, obsessed with the individual rather than the collective. The project also challenged the patriarchy inherent in the way many of us think about human rights, which pays too little attention to women’s disproportionate responsibility for care work.

The project disrupts the almost exclusive emphasis that the HRBA put on claiming rights from governments. The women involved also needed to make demands of individuals – communities, cultural leaders, family members – who are not seen as ‘duty-bearers’ under international human rights law. In developing the most recent strategy, staff at ActionAid recognised that the organisation should pay more attention to social as well as policy change.

This might be risky: governments may resist demands for public services – also crucial in addressing women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care – by arguing that change really needs to happen in the family or community.

But as long as these risks are taken into account, the Making Care Visible project shows how rights-based approaches can ensure that community priorities are taken into account and how the articulation of those priorities – through local, national and international advocacy efforts – can help to plug some of the gaps in the international human rights framework.

Read more about Making Care Visible and the evolution of the HRBA at ActionAid here.