Does Human Rights work face special challenges in assessing impact?

By Rosalind Eyben - Rosalind was a participant in ICHRP’s workshop on ‘Approaches to Assessing and Evaluating Human Rights Work’, 3-4 October 2011.  This article originally appeared on the Big Push Forward website.

On the 3rd and 4th October the International Council on Human Rights Policy organised a workshop in Geneva about assessing the impact of human rights work in the current ‘results-based management’ (RBM) environment. The agenda covered a range of issues but part of the discussion that most interested me was whether and how human rights work differed from and therefore had to be assessed differently from development practice With nearly 30 participants representing international human rights and grant making organisations there was a useful sharing of views about impact – for example Amnesty’s definition is ‘ significant and sustainable changes, positive or negative, expected or unexpected, in the lives of people and communities brought about by human rights interventions’.

The workshop discussed how those international human rights organisations (HROs) that (unlike Amnesty do not have a large membership base) and are reliant on organisational grants are under increasing pressure to understand and assess impact in relation to the achievement of pre-determined results. Participants worried that donors - governments and philanthropic foundations are viewing human rights as similar to ‘development’ work. ‘Human rights work is about shifting power’, said one participant, ‘ that is why it is different from development work’. My response was that it all depends how you understand ‘development’! Those of us involved in the Big Push Forward initiative, see our development practice as support to social transformation and it would be hard to distinguish the particularities of human rights work from rights-based and social justice approaches to development.

A common challenge for both human rights and development practice is that we work in dynamic environment, context specific environments, involving both a multiplicity of actors and inequitable power relations, making it difficult, if not impossible to predict when and how the changes we are seeking to the status quo will come about. Participants stressed both the long term nature of change – results might not be achieved within the standard 3-5 year funding – and the need for flexibility and planned opportunism when things suddenly change. Mention was made of the Arab Spring and the difficulty HROs in the region were having in switching their activities at short notice when tied into a 3 year funding cycle with pre-determined results agreed with the donor.

One particularity of human rights work is it involves not only helping make good change occur – the greater realisation of human rights – but also the prevention of bad change happening – i.e. systemic human rights abuses. It reminds me of when the British Foreign Office was first required to start thinking in RBM terms and an ambassador colleague grumbled about how to demonstrate that their diplomacy had stopped the outbreak of conflict. Hard to imagine doing a randomized control trial on that one!

Another particularity is that some of the work is dangerous for those struggling against oppressive authorities requiring a consequent responsibility of the organisations working from safe places like Geneva to support activists in a manner that does not enhance this danger. For example it might be necessary not to reveal what has been achieved and who was involved in achieving it. Finally, a unique aspect of human rights work, is assessing impact against the standard of the international conventions and in that respect the workshop discussed the importance of HROs working together to improve their evaluation approaches and to prevent their grant-makers imposing methods that risked undermining human rights work.

Further Reading:

About the Author:
Rosalind Eyben is one of the co-convenors of the Big Push Forward. She has been a Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies  where she is a member of the Participation, Power and Social Change team where she works on power and relations in the international aid system. She was previously employed by the UK Department for International Development and before that as consultant and adviser to the ILO, FAO and other United Nations agencies. 

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