Southern Responses at British Academy “Working Together: Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and Gender Equality” Workshop

In November 2018, Dr Estella Carpi from the Southern Responses to Displacement research team took part in “Working Together: Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and Gender Equality,” a workshop held at the British Academy to launch a report of the same title. In this post, Dr Estella Carpi reflects on the workshop and the report, which focuses on the need for the human rights and SDG frameworks to work together in a bid to take steps towards achieving substantive gender equality. In this regard, the Southern Responses project is examining how principles and motivations differ in various models of care, development, advocacy and protection across the global North and the global South, and how ‘northern’ approaches have historically overshadowed alternative frameworks to overcome diverse structural barriers and inequalities.

This blog was posted on the 27 November 2018.  

Southern Responses at British Academy “Working Together: Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and Gender Equality” Workshop

By Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement Project.

On November 12, 2018, a large number of gender and development experts gathered at the British Academy to discuss the importance of finding effective ways to achieve gender equality, the fifth sustainable development goal (SDG) set by the United Nations in its 2030 Agenda. Indeed, the Agenda clearly sets out a “supremely ambitious and transformational vision” that underpins its aims and objectives.

In the framework of this Agenda, the workshop provided a forum to launch and debate a British Academy report authored by Prof. Sandra Fredman (University of Oxford) which addresses four dimensions of equality: redressing disadvantage, addressing stereotyping, stigma, prejudice and violence, facilitating voice and participation, and pursuing systemic or institutional change. I find this last point particularly promising, as the need to overcome structural and institutional barriers and inequalities is usually overlooked in global development agendas.

By using the lens of “transformative equality” – i.e. gender equality that in turn engenders further social progress – Fredman’s report focuses on women and reproductive health, and women and poverty, using the human rights and the SDGs framework. As the report specifies, commentators have often advocated applying a human rights approach to the SDGs, to redress the SDG’s deficiencies: for instance, the absence of values like the accountability of implementors and the participation of all social groups. In light of such absences, States fail to view development goals as binding commitments in terms of rights.

In this respect, our Southern Responses project aims to understand the extent to which a ‘Southern’ lens can help us further interrogate how a human rights approach and a SDG approach are conceived and implemented in different contexts and shaped by different cultures of intervention. In effect the current and potential relationship between Southern-led approaches and the SDGs in humanitarian settings was the focus of the Symposium we held at the UCL Humanitarian Institute in May 2018.

On the one hand, human rights and SDG frameworks, when used in synergy with each other, can certainly add value and increase the effectiveness of each other’s frameworks. On the other hand, however, although it is desirable to use the frameworks collaboratively to foster gender equality, the differences between a human rights approach and a SDGs approach are certainly not irrelevant.

While SDGs primarily tend to address disadvantage without fully taking into account its gendered aspects, the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, and the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) rather address recognition, participation and structural change. CEDAW and ICESCR both recognise and make gender explicit, but struggle to frame socio-economic phenomena like poverty as gendered.

In relation to transformative equality, the workshop speakers, ranging from representatives from UN Women to several international universities, all put an emphasis on the importance of shared responsibility within the household and of valuing domestic work and unpaid care, infrastructure and social protection policies.

Echoing a longstanding approach in development policies, the report opens by quoting a statement made on February 28 2005 by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in which he explicitly frames the “empowerment of women” as a “tool for development”. In light of such statements and policies, Fredman’s report reminds us of the risk of instrumentalizing gender equality: are all human rights and development efforts aimed at making women work for development, or, rather, at fostering development for women? As Prof. Christine Chinkin (London School of Economics) pointed out, the role that gender ideology plays is paramount in instrumentalization as well as avoiding instrumentalization.

The report goes on to effectively highlight different traps that both a human rights framework and a SDG framework may entail. Above all, it pinpoints the risk of using indicators to measure the goals that have been established in the 2030 Agenda: the development aims are inherently social, economic and political processes, even though they are expressed in the UN Agenda through well-bounded categories. As Fredman advises in her report, the measuring tools therefore need to be tailored to processes rather than factors or outcomes.

Further key challenges that all workshop panels sought to underscore included the importance of encouraging policy-makers to adopt a long-term perspective, and of helping domestic judges and local judicial bodies to pursue rights and implement justice.

As the report’s author highlights, there is also the significant methodological challenge posed by the different lenses that the two frameworks use to work towards gender equality: human rights are premised on the intrinsic value of each human being, as rights are individual entitlements. On the contrary, SDGs measure development and equality through the improvement of “aggregate welfare”, therefore not focusing on individuals.

During the event, both workshop leaders and participants pointed out the need to learn from the societies which are made targets for both the promotion of human rights and the SDG Agenda. However, the achievement of a mutual and horizontal exchange of skills and thinking cannot be realized merely through verbal statements voiced from a London venue.

Nonetheless, concepts and processes such as equality, human rights and development need to be contextualised from a geopolitical, social, and cultural perspective to pave the way to actual gender equality. Importantly, Southern approaches and experiences have not sufficiently remoulded the northern mainstream discourse on rights and development thus far. Against this backdrop, Southern-led efforts to exchange knowledge, relations, and solidarity within and across the so-called global South (of which the UN Office for South-South Cooperation is only the most visible platform amongst many others) are still too scarcely incorporated into global discussions. Instead, human rights and development goals are still unquestionably approached as systemic binaries that need to be reconciled and integrated.

Indeed, an enlarged understanding of the contexts where rights and development are desired is still needed. Relying on a diverse range of conceptions and approaches – potentially cutting across “Northern” and “Southern” political geographies – we can further interrogate the two analytical and methodological frameworks of rights and development.

More pieces by the Southern Responses team exploring Southern approaches to promoting human rights, overcoming structural barriers and addressing inequalities in humanitarian settings include:

Empires of Inclusion – In this blog post, Southern Responses’ Research Associate Dr Estella Carpi explores the implications of the concept and process of ‘inclusion’ in relation to South-South Cooperation.

Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement – In this blog post Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh highlights the need for the analyses of local responses to be more attentive to the longstanding history of diverse “local/Southern” actors and examines the ways in which Southern-led responses can work alongside, or explicitly challenge, Northern-led responses to displacement.

Southern Responses to Displacement:  Background and introduction to our mini blog series – In this introduction to our mini blog series Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh gives an overview of the background to the Southern Responses to Displacement project and the approaches we are using to better understand the motivations, nature and impacts of Southern-led initiatives to displacement from Syria.

Featured image: On the road (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, leaving Amman (Jordan), October 2018

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