Mind the Gap between Poor and Rich: An Equal Rights Approach is Key in Global Development

Mind the Gap between Poor and Rich: An Equal Rights Approach is Key in Global Development

JURIST Guest Columnist Dimitrina Petrova of Equal Rights Trust discusses the need to reduce inequality as a development goal in order to reach a prime Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)…

As we entered 2016, a new resolution to “transform our world” by 2030 came into effect. On January 1, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). With this New Year’s resolution has come new wisdom. Among many other advances, the SDGs address one major shortcoming of the MDGs: the failure to make reducing inequality a development goal.

The MDGs largely neglected the role which inequality can play in frustrating human development efforts. This has had serious consequences, both for the communities that have been excluded and for the success of national policy measures designed to achieve development goals. Yet the centrality of equal rights in development policies is not a new idea among strategic thinkers, such as Nobel Prize Laureate Amartya Sen. A reflection of the need to reduce inequality is also found in the early work of the UN Development Programme [PDF].

In recent years, research by NGOs has demonstrated that ethnic and religious minorities [PDF], persons with disabilities [PDF] and older persons [PDF] have frequently been left behind by MDG efforts focused on achieving aggregate targets. Success in reaching such targets often disguised an increase of the gap between groups inside a country. For example, a reduction of maternal mortality by 75 percent (MDG 5) might be achieved at the expense of concentrating efforts in urban centers in pursuit of quick results whilst ignoring rural or remote communities.

The SDGs’ focus on reducing inequality is to be welcomed and as the new framework came into effect, the pressing question now is how can this be achieved? The answer, increasingly recognized over the last years, lies in the direction of holistic government-led interventions; but what has not been stressed as strongly as it should have been is that an essential element of this approach is the adoption and enforcement of comprehensive equality laws on which such policies should be based.

Since 2013, the Organization Equal Rights Trust has advocated the adoption of an equal rights approach to development [PDF], which rests on comprehensive equality legislation prohibiting discrimination on all recognized grounds and requiring states to adopt positive (affirmative) action measures to address substantive inequalities of particular groups. The difference between development with and without this approach is the difference between enforceable rights and unaccountable aspirations.

Until just a few years ago, it was legal for courts in Kenya to discriminate against widows in succession cases. Disinherited widows would be evicted from their homes and land and have no means of redress. A new Constitution [PDF] adopted in 2010, finally prohibited such discrimination. If women are able to seek enforcement of their legal right to equality, they would be stepping up to an entirely new level on their ascent to full participatory equality with men. The Equal Rights Trust, among others, works with Kenyan women to enable them to dare forward.

With effective equality legislation in place, the ethnic minority living in a marginalized area can use the law to challenge development policies which direct resources to other parts of the country; the persons with disabilities can challenge the failure to accommodate their needs in places of education and employment; all those disadvantaged by history of policy or both can take effective steps to reducing the inequality gap in their societies.

The MDGs of the past 15 years leaped over the inequality gap. The SDGs of future decades require taking a good look at the gap to create the regulatory framework for interventions that would make it shrink.

Dimitrina Petrova is the founding Executive Director of the Equal Rights Trust, the international organization advancing equality worldwide. Dimitrina previously headed the European Roma Rights Centre, recognized for its pioneering work on racial equality. She has help professorships at various universities and published extensively on human rights, equality, politics and social sciences.

Suggested citation: Dimitrina Petrova, Mind the Gap Between Poor and Rich: An Equal Rights Approach is Key in Global Development, JURIST – Professional Commentary, Feb. 3, 2016, http://jurist.org/professional/2016/02/Dimitrina-Petrova-poor-and-rich.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Marisa Rodrigues, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.