separating needs from rights

separating needs from rights
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Alkire (2002) proposes that human development is the growth in individuals’ and societies’ potential to pursue political, economic, social, public, and private freedoms. For this growth to happen, empowerment is central in each of the aforementioned sectors. Each of these areas needs to be considered when seeking methods that affect positive change because human development is not a singular abstraction, but rather a multidimensional concept. Effective frameworks and methodologies can be created to measure and track whether progress is actually happening by targeting specific components of human life.

These component aspects are known as dimensions – in this case, they are coexisting aspects of human development that are essential in tracking both intended and unintended impacts of our empowerment efforts (Alkire, 2002). Unlike widely-spread beliefs, our aims in human development entail more than just well-being, they also consider our agency to fully engage in other life pursuits. An illustration of this is space exploration. By spending time and money on technology that can capture extraterrestrial matter, our well-being is not directly affected, yet the fact that we can indulge in such a pursuit signifies that we are at a better place as a race than we were, say a millennium ago.

Nevertheless, many scholars agree that well-being is a good measure and goal for human development, along with good standards of living and justice. For instance, mortality rates have been used to rank the status of health in the regions of the world and gross national income (GNI) per capita has been considered a consequential proxy of both well-being and standard of living (Alkire, 2002). Investigating the trends in these areas is a necessary step in putting together the wider puzzle that is human development.

There is still some contention about what the exact pieces of this puzzle are though. Scholars from varying disciplines suggest different approaches to dissecting what areas are overarching in our discussion of human development as a phenomenon. Yet in spite of the methodological approach, Alkire (2002) suggests that a comprehensive list of dimensions does not stem from a metaphysical concept such as Aristotle’s hierarchy of needs, is not overly specific as to limit its global applicability, and not too prescriptive.

One such set of dimensions is the one employed in the computation of the human development index, as recorded in the human development report. In the 2010 human development report, for instance, there are three major components considered: well-being (the expansion of individuals’ and societies’ real freedoms), empowerment and agency (how supporters can facilitate impact), and justice (maintaining equity and sustainable development). By breaking down our efforts into these three areas, our goals then become health and longevity, decent standards of living, and increased accessibility to knowledge (Klugman, 2010).

Therefore, the dimensions of human development from these goals are health, education, and living standards, which are tested by four indicators respectively, life expectancy at birth, expected and mean years of schooling, and gross national income (GNI) per capita (Klugman, 2010). These align with John Finnis’ foundational account detailed by Alkire (2002) that a proper list of dimensions should be incommensurable (no single denominator among the dimensions), irreducible (the list could not be any shorter), and nonhierarchical (there is no permanent hierarchy among the dimensions). Yet some critics have pointed out that this list does not properly account for agency, particularly in areas such as gender equality, biodiversity, and democracy (Klugman, 2010). This proves how truly challenging it is to create a set of dimensions that strikes a good balance between specificity and vagueness to ensure that the dimensions are relevant and desirable across different cultures and societies.

When looking at the state of children across different regions of the world, for instance, trends show that the spread of diseases and lack of food are urgent matters of concern for Sub-Saharan children, evident in the high under-5 mortality rates (Wang et al., 2014). Although a substantial minority of Western European children also die under the age of 5, the focus for these more developed countries is on the lack of child care and child support post early childhood. This means that there are temporary hierarchies in our approaches to issues affecting children depending on the region of the world. Some scholars argue, however, for a permanent hierarchy between different aspects of human development we can tackle.

One similar approach is known as the needs-based approach. This approach is one that argues for the focus on basic needs first for all children, these needs include food and water, shelter, and health services. This approach stems from the idea that we should first focus on securing children from absolute poverty by ensuring that their most fundamental needs, deficiencies, and problems are taken care of (Stewart, 1985). It is a more traditional approach that prioritizes efforts towards the bare minimum outcome goals before higher aspirations and process goals. However, the main criticism of this approach is that it does not empower the children. An approach that does recognize empowerment as central to children’s development is the rights-based approach. In this method, the beneficiaries (also known as “rights holders”) have agency in their own development. Unlike the needs-based approach, here children and their caregivers have the right to speak up for themselves and take an active role in building themselves up and fighting the issues that impede their advancement (Uvin, 2007).

Therefore, charity is insufficient as the main method of intervention, and more intersectional frameworks are put in place to solve the pressing issues of a given society. Similarly, the capabilities approach also focuses on empowerment, but mostly on the expansion of children’s capabilities and functions (Alkire, 2002). The aim of this approach is to ensure that children can become more ready to pursue their well-being and other freedoms available to them. In this approach, once the most central capabilities are identified, they can then be used by governments and agencies as constitutional principles, therefore involving more bodies in children’s development.  



Alkire, S. (2002). Dimensions of human development. World Development, 30(2), 181-205. 

Klugman, J. (2010). Human development report 2010–20th Anniversary Edition. The real wealth of nations: Pathways to human development. https://humandevelopmentreport-klugman 

Stewart, F. (1985). A Basic Needs Approach to Development. In: Planning to Meet Basic Needs. Palgrave Macmillan, London. 

Uvin, P. (2007). From the right to development to the rights-based approach: how ‘human rights’ entered development. Development in practice, 17(4-5), 597-606. 

Wang, H., Liddell, C. A., Coates, M. M., Mooney, M. D., Levitz, C. E., Schumacher, A. E., ... & Moore, A. R. (2014). Global, regional, and national levels of neonatal, infant, and under-5 mortality during 1990–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. The Lancet, 384(9947), 957-979.