Integrating human rights into development cooperation: empirical findings from the right to water


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Publication Title

Empirical reflections on the role of human rights in development discourse at the international level: a case study of the the right to water

Publication Type


Dr. Anna Russell, Oxford Centre for Water Research, University of Oxford

Publication Date

26 Nov 2008


Publication URL




Historically, the field of international development has been disconnected - both in theory and in practice - from the field of international human rights. Development specialists have traditionally worked in isolation from human rights advocates. Since the 1990s, there has been a convergence of these fields and the two communities have begun to interact more closely. However, while the two fields are now being labeled as ‘mutually reinforcing’, there remains a lack of empirical research examining the entry of human rights into the development sector.

After tracing the historical interaction between these two fields, this paper examines the current role of human rights in development discourse at the international level. Using the right to water as a case study, an empirical investigation was conducted into how various groups (international organizations, non-governmental organizations and transnational corporations) understand and use human rights in the context of international development discourse. A qualitative methodology consisting of documentation review and interviews of key informants was used.

Based on the three groups examined, in international development discourse, the right to water is often seen as a theoretical construct and having little influence on improving universal access to basic services. Alternatively, or sometimes simultaneously, it is seen as simply a development outcome. While significant resistance to the incorporation of rights language into the sector was visible, there was some attraction to its inherent advocacy and empowerment potential through its associated notions of entitlement. Organizations which use the right to water tend to do so to spark political mobilization around water access issues. In doing so, in the development context, the right to water has become loosely equated with any number of vague principles of participation, non-discrimination, access to information etc. International human rights in development discourse have become disassociated from legal obligations and normative standards. This paper therefore calls for a re-injection of reference to the international human rights framework when integrating rights into development cooperation - both within and beyond the water sector.


See also


Q&A: The Right to Water

External Resources


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