Seventy years ago, the world laid out a common standard of fundamental rights for all people, which they said should be universally defended.
Now, the global environment is shifting. Nations that once led the way in promoting cross-border protections are retrenching. Scandals undercut major international development agencies when they fail to uphold these sentiments. Meanwhile, corporations — once vilified for their behavior — are building human rights into their work.
“Human rights touches every aspect of a company’s operations,” Margaret Jungk, managing director for human rights at Business for Social Responsibility, said in 2016. Today, corporations such as Facebook see “the responsibility [they] have to respect the individual and human rights of the … global community” — and hire accordingly, as stated in a recent job vacancy at the social media network.
Incorporating human rights into development work may require you to consider national politics, social media, sexual discrimination, and everything in between. To successfully navigate a new public, private, and nonprofit development landscape, four traits will be critical.
“Just as in broader questions of global development, human rights considerations are rarely clear-cut. Context matters.”— Carmen Mezzera, executive director, Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs
1. Context is key
Just as in broader questions of global development, human rights considerations are rarely clear-cut. Context matters. Are you trained to understand the economic, political, social, cultural, and historical factors at play? Can you identify the forces influencing a situation? Are you qualified to perform proper due diligence?
"Human rights work has to be focused within the contexts where development is playing out," said Francisco Bencosme, Asia-Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International.
"In Myanmar, an entrenched system of apartheid can change the analysis of a seemingly positive housing project. [For example, under] the guise of development for Rakhine State, we have in the past seen new homes constructed for ethnic minorities on top old homes that used to belong to the Rohingya. It is these kind of development practices that need to take human rights contexts into account," Bencosme said.
Seek out educational and professional opportunities that develop a flexible framework for evaluating decisions. One size will not fit all.
Mark Maloney, vice dean at the Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs, explained: “Adaptability is a key skill ... [one] even more important in humanitarian work because the stakes can be considerably higher when things go wrong.”
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“For that reason, understanding the context, including relationships within and between parties, is a fundamental skill we try to develop through our Master in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action” he added. “This skill also maximizes the likelihood that our graduates will make the 'right decision at the right moment' when undertaking action on the ground.”
2. Be ‘client-ready’
Development professionals must tailor their work to many constituencies.
Have you practiced framing a discussion to make sense to diverse groups? Have you learned to persuade people while recognizing their different needs? Do you have the credentials to make people listen to what you have to say?
Learn to write and present arguments in clear, concise, and compelling ways. Work to improve your cross-cultural competencies. Expand proficiency in different languages. Look for opportunities to get close to the communities you want to serve, as well as to the funders, governments, and companies working on the ground.
“The human rights framework brings a human-centered analysis to the work of development professionals,” said Barbara Frey, director of the human rights program at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
“This analysis starts with the question: Who is the rights bearer and who is the duty bearer in a situation? [It] tests how the consequences of actions can help or harm the clients [you] seek to serve.”
3. Develop connections
Access to individuals and information is critical to getting the job done.
With whom have you cultivated connections? From whom can you get critical information? Have you developed academic and professional networks to open doors?
Maintain relationships throughout your career via social media and in-person ties. Seek the counsel of former classmates, professors, or colleagues. Look for undergraduate or graduate schools with close ties to the field.
For example, students at the International Human Rights Center at Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies incorporate concern for human rights into a wide range of activities. They build networks, workshops, and symposia in partnership with Human Asia, a human rights NGO in South Korea. According to the school, these opportunities prepare students to “serve as productive members of their organizations and to play leadership roles in the international community.”
4. Character is destiny
Easy answers do not always present themselves.
Are you bold enough to choose the difficult route? Can you withstand criticism from naysayers who cannot or will not envision anything beyond the status quo? Do you know how to rejuvenate your spirit when things look bleak?
“Forces larger than yourself will make you face some tough moral choices,” said Reuben Brigety, dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. From his time at Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department, he has counseled young professionals to realize that “your character is your destiny. Have courage!”
To succeed at the intersection of human rights and development, you must ask good questions. Tailor your approach; build diverse networks; and, cultivate an internal moral compass to navigate the changing human rights and global development landscape.
Update, Nov. 1, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that “the responsibility [they] have to respect the individual and human rights of the … global community” was stated by a recent job vacancy at Facebook.
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