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writing for godot

Be notified: The introduction of the human rights framework is not a fashion; it embodies a seminal paradigm shift --not smooth, but a break. (part 1 of 2)

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Friday, 10 January 2020 23:29

Human rights: Food for a needed break-to-carry-on thought  ‘paradigms and HR’


Human Rights Reader 511

-Are we all being co-opted too easily by the comforts of conforming? Are we fearful of the retribution that questioning may and often does bring? (Romila Thappar)

-We do have a choice; we can submit to the present global disorder or reject it. (Susan George)


Introduction: The way an issue is framed by different parties at different times is a powerful agenda-setting tool: The case of human rights (adapted from Jody Harris)


-Paradigms reveal power relationships in society as expressed through language and practice. (This is not really captured in the actual dictionary definition of paradigm that is a bit more restricted; it tells us that a paradigm is “a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitute a way of viewing reality for the community/group that shares them”).


1. Problematizing human rights (HR) issues in certain ways has implications for what is done (or not) to address them. Therefore, policy makers and development practitioners ought to reflect on the limits that the ruling paradigm and dominant forms of knowledge impose on what is being done in their name (or being strongly recommended to them). The ‘rendering technical’ of complex, often politically-charged processes, in order to more simply frame a response, has side-lined political and ethical action for the fulfillment of HR.


2. Distinct eras of thinking that dominate for a time  change as understanding grows, contexts change, and theories are refined or abandoned. Ideas that define dominant assumptions and norms at a certain time control what may legitimately be observed, what kinds of questions can be asked, how questions are structured, and how results ought to be interpreted. This exerts a deep influence on how we think about issues of HR in one way rather than another --on top of rendering certain issues especially salient while others are deliberately being made invisible.


3. This influence presents political opportunities for policymakers and practitioners to cherry-pick options by aligning themselves with different interpretations of knowledge according to their political interests or beliefs --as, more often than not, framed by the ruling paradigm.


4. In this way, multiple actors can be seen to be following their own interests in projects undertaken in pursuit of the same stated goal(s). There have always been parallel agendas --sometimes competing, sometimes mutually reinforcing-- leading to different discourses around the issues to be addressed especially in the case of HR.  Central in this situation, then, are negotiation and conflict, including between those in the same field.


5. A dominant or mainstream paradigm usually co-exists with one or more ‘counterpoint paradigms’, that attempt to replace each other in a paradigmatic struggle, either coming from external forces bringing about a crisis in the discourse or coming from cumulative internal conflicts when the necessarily flawed discourse is no longer tenable. But note, often, only the discourse may change, but the agendas do not, and the actions promoted by different groups in the name of HR can be contradictory. Such agendas have been promoted by global actors trying to bring multiple agencies on board to act on HR --but each from their particular perspective.


6. This plays out similarly in national contexts where numerous external funders (‘donors’), international NGOs and ministries can and do see their roles in defining HR-based solutions without much change in their original mandates. It is precisely this ‘all things to all people’ property of the concept that both enables action on a purportedly common cause, but also limits progress on the HR cause when participants are pulling in different directions.


7. Furthermore, seeking the-much-called-for interagency ‘coherence’ risks largely excluding research and practice that does not fit within the dominant paradigm. Practitioners will too often recognize and reproduce the common opinions of the field as self-evident, crowding out even the acknowledgment of other possible ways of interpreting/working. Background assumptions embedded in members of multidisciplinary teams become so ubiquitous as to be invisible by hiding behind the paradigm’s protective perimeter. Ultimately, the types of knowledge that are accepted in the field validate certain kinds of action, in our case on HR.


What it all boils down to


8. ‘Expert’ practitioners are being driven to certain technical solutions when tackling complex social problems.* Removing the context from an issue such as HR, and representing it in neutral scientific and technical terms, therefore, either deliberately or unconsciously, filters out the possibility of non-technical social or political actions in its resolution. [Scientists can claim to be politically neutral, precisely because of the specific way that science is construed as ‘truth’. But ‘truth’ conforms to the rules and norms of the discourse(!) --and, as an interest group, scientists often take a technical stance rather than embarking in reorganizing power relations. In the first place, ponder that topics to be researched are not chosen a-politically. Influential academic publications (often financed by the same development ‘donors’) publish these topics widely].

*: All this is not to say that cherry-picking-HR-practitioners are immune to this; they can sometimes be cynical in their choice of actions.


9. In order to get an important issue onto the agenda and into funding cycles, grant seekers have to be firmly within the paradigm boundaries. The idea is to avoid head-on conflicts with established power --whether government, private sector, or other elites. Rendering an issue technical (which funders look for) eventually leads to designated experts being the only people accredited to talk about HR with authority, even while those experiencing hunger and malnutrition, for example, may prefer different responses. In applying for funding, best is supposed to be focusing on distinct elements of HR that can be provided rather than negotiated


10. Many of those in the international HR working community are not aware that our training and orientation has predisposed us to a technical bias; the subjectivities are hidden even from ourselves.


Bottom line


11. The production and circulation of discourses is an integral part of the exercise of power with dominant narratives propagating the ideas that end up as policy. Disregarding the social and political context into which a set of external ideas is inserted gives rise to project failures and unintended consequences. Development projects, especially the few purportedly centered on HR, commonly do not achieve their stated objectives, because projects are based on constructions of contexts that are not grounded in a shared vision of reality, but rather on the needs of those intervening. These projects cleverly (or not) adapt to circumstances on the ground to maintain what is a mirage. Bringing new understandings into these policy debates is key for the HR movement. (J. Harris)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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