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Back | Programme Area: Overarching Concerns

Needs, Rights and Social Development



This paper is based on a speech given by Rodolfo Stavenhagen at the conference, Taking Responsibility for Social Development, organized by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) on 29 June 2000 in Geneva. The conference was held during the five-year review of the World Summit for Social Development.

The paper looks at the development of rights and the link with social development. According to Stavenhagen, free-market economics and globalization, instead of providing solutions to some of the world’s most serious problems such as poverty, tend to exacerbate them. He says that the idea of social and human development has become the “step-child” of international priorities and that, rhetoric aside, development does not always take into account human values and social goals; rather, development is often confused with economic growth.

All human beings have to satisfy material, cultural, social and spiritual needs, and it is the purpose of development strategies and policies to contribute to their fulfilment. Development must serve the needs of the people, especially the poor, which means that needs must be factored into development strategies. These must be designed to address the issue squarely: not as a hoped-for secondary fall-out or an afterthought, but as the centrepiece of development thinking.

Stavenhagen also says that development—however defined—must be considered not only as a process of accumulation or change, but rather as a collective good, to the extent that it addresses the common needs of specific social and cultural groups. Sometimes it is “development” itself that is the problem, when it is imposed without taking into account the particularities of specific contexts.

Most human needs have been framed in modern times as legitimate rights to which citizens can aspire, and which society at large has an obligation to respect and provide for. Struggles for the fulfilment of needs have resulted in needs becoming rights, which in turn became the legitimate and legal framework for political and social action in modern nation-states.

However, according to Stavenhagen, national development strategies were not always modified based on these principles. Instead, development strategies were subordinated to overall growth objectives in the emerging global marketplace. One of the great illusions of recent decades has been that market forces by themselves can pull the poorest countries and the poorest populations in all countries out of the morass they are in. Obviously, development cannot be left to markets alone. This view is reflected in what Stavenhagen calls the “currently fashionable” Third Way in politics, which maintains that both the community and the market have a role to play in development and that the excesses of the market can be held in check by regulations.

Stavenhagen maintains that development policies designed to alleviate poverty, overcome social exclusion and reduce persistent categorical inequalities must focus on the needs and rights of specific categories or groups in society. But they must do so in areas that make a difference: that is, productive activities, and the ownership and control of the means of production and the fruits of labour, the organization of the workplace, decision-making processes, legal framework enabling autonomous participation, respect for cultural differences and social identities and, of course, democratic governance.

He concludes by stating that futures that include socially valued ends must be based on the understanding that human needs and human rights can best be served through the articulation of people-oriented participatory institutions at all levels of society. The state must be seen not only as a regulatory mechanism for diverse and sometimes conflictive interests, but also as an instrument for the achievement of socially desired collective goods and the well-being of all of society’s members. Such a state can only be built up from the grassroots level, and can thrive only in a democratic environment. It is accountable at all levels and linked to the various other institutions of civil society. These institutions, in turn, must become the countervailing power to state authority. Democratization, decentralization, deregulation and devolution are all concepts linked to a socially responsible state.

The state in all its ramifications must be brought back in as a socially responsible and accountable institution of governance, with a clear vision of what the public sphere is to provide in terms of addressing the needs and rights of human beings. The market serves only as a necessary mechanism for the allocation of certain kinds of consumer goods and services, and a stimulant to changes in productivity—not as the judge and provider of socially valued collective goods. These collective goods can only be obtained through politics: the politics of consensus building, collective participation, transparent decision making and democratic commitments, inspired by the values of freedom, justice and morality.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jul 2003
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-816X
    From: UNRISD