Uganda's new anti-homosexuality law has disheartened the international human rights community. Would it have been possible to foresee Museveni's approval of the law? In an ideal world, actors promoting human rights can design projects and interventions and see them through with norms and laws in mind. In the real world, where politics and erratic decisions come into play, human rights work is extremely challenging.

The Uganda case illustrates the challenges of protecting and promoting human rights in a changing context. Human rights work promotes values that may be at cross with the prevailing values in a given society. It may not only aim at designing and implementing projects, but also at wide-ranging changes in legislation and policy. In the end, human rights work may not even be about human rights. Other factors, like international and national politics may determine whether you succeed or fail.

In the Uganda case, commentators are now discussing whether Uganda's anti-homosexuality law is really a result of political horse trade. In such circumstances, it is difficult to plan for and design aid projects and interventions that promote human rights.  

-When planning aid projects and interventions with the protection and promotion of human rights in mind, you always need to think several moves ahead, says CMI researchers Hugo Stokke and Arne Tostensen.

Pragmatism vs. ideals
A few years ago, contractors set out to build a new road in an area close to Lake Victoria in Kenya. The construction of the road was labour intensive and required hundreds of workers to work long hours. The workers had to endure heat and harsh working conditions. Now imagine that many of those workers were children. This is exactly the kind of situation that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is meant to prevent. It is thus fair to say that those planning the construction work had failed to take children's rights into account. The case from Kenya illustrates perfectly how challenging human rights work is in practice. To be able to assess what was best for the children in question the actors involved in the project had to understand the causal chains involved in the project.

In this particular area of Kenya the HIV and AIDS pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll. Many children have lost their parents. Some have become heads of household. Child-headed households have become a regular feature of society. Preventing children who are heads of household from taking on road construction work would deprive them of their livelihood, including younger siblings in the household. To address this problem, local committees in the communities concerned became involved in the planning and implementation of the road construction project. They took a pragmatic approach and allowed what strictly speaking could be labelled child labour. However, at the same time they ensured that the working children went to school in the evenings and during weekends to satisfy their right to education. In this pragmatic manner the children would actually be better off if the CRC provisions were sidelined to some extent rather than rigidly enforced, says Arne Tostensen, senior researcher at CMI. 

Tostensen and Hugo Stokke have contributed to a new book on the policies and practices of diverse actors in applying human rights-based approaches to development: Human rights and development in the new millennium. Towards a theory of changepublished by Routledge.

Driven by norms and laws
The CRC celebrates its 24th anniversary in 2014. Countries all over the world, including Kenya, have ratified the CRC, putting children's rights firmly on the agenda. Still, children's rights and human rights observance in general is a challenging and time-consuming task.

-Human rights work is often driven by norms and laws, whereas development work tends to be more concrete and evidence-based. Human rights work also tends to be more principled. This creates several challenges for human rights actors aiming for visible changes. Organisations and other stakeholders working on human rights need to translate general principles into actual practice on the ground, says Stokke.

All approaches are based on assumptions of what facilitates social change. According to Tostensen and Stokke, donors often opt for a planning tool called logical framework analysis when they design interventions. It sees projects in terms of goal and objectives to be achieved by means of certain inputs (money and expertise) through activities that eventually lead to outputs - and hopefully long-term impact. This method is quick and concrete, but it fails to take into account the importance of context which keeps changing. Typically, an intervention based on logical framework analysis would not have foreseen the problems a ban on child labour would have caused for the hard-working children employed by the contractors in the Kenyan road construction project. Still, in an environment where quick and tangible results are demanded a recipe for quick results in the form of logical framework analysis is appealing.

Mainstreaming is a method for including cross-cutting issues such as gender equality, environment and HIV and AIDS, with a view to allowing them to inform the design of the project or intervention. Designing the intervention, donors need to keep all these cross-cutting issues in mind, and make sure that no part of the intervention harms or has any adverse effect on the others. The drawback is that mainstreaming is very time-consuming, and requires in-depth knowledge about local context as well as development work in general.

A way forward
Contextual knowledge is crucial in choosing local partners. Bilateral cooperation has often proved to be challenging when it comes to human rights. Civil society organisations might be more receptive to external inputs on human rights issues. Hence, donors often turn to such actors who support their agenda on human rights and development.

There are benefits and disadvantages to both targeted interventions and mainstreaming, and to working with civil society organisations as opposed to states. Yet, in order to create sustainable and durable change there is no way around involving the primary duty-bearers, i.e. the state.

-This does not mean that donors should always choose the mainstreaming strategy and cooperate with state actors. In a short-term perspective, targeted interventions and projects through civil society organisations may be the best alternative. These actors have the flexibility and the close ties to the grassroots that are needed to achieve immediate effects, says Tostensen.

The way forward is to combine mainstreaming with targeted interventions, i.e. to cooperate with state actors as well as civil society organisations , according to Tostensen and Stokke.

-Achieving changes through a human rights-based approach may take longer than what is possible within a project framework. A narrow focus on short-term tangible outcomes through specific targets may come at the expense of deeper, long-term institutional changes in legislation and policy-making, says Stokke.