The problem with “development” – linking infrastructure to content indicators

Responding to reports by the special rapporteurs on migrants and extreme poverty at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, the government of Botswana had something interesting to say. It said that although it did not recognise the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs) “in any legal sense”, it subscribed to its objectives. In line with this it was doing everything possible to meet its social and economic development goals.

Botswana is not alone in still having to ratify the ESCR covenant, but its response raises the straightforward question: If it agrees with the objectives of the covenant, why not sign it?

The issue that appears to be at stake is the distinction between “development” – a loose term that can be used to signify a lot and very little at the same time – and a rights-based approach to development. And the indicators for achieving either can look very different indeed.

Even while governments sign onto the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in this way implicitly committing themselves to many of the SDG objectives that overlap with the ESCR covenant, it appears this problem with “development” won’t go away so easily. At an HRC side-event on access to information organised by Article 19, Mukelani Dimba, representing the Open Government Partnership (OGP), said that on commitments to access to information from the 69 states participating in the OGP, they face a key challenge. Of some 2500 commitments by governments to open governance, only about eight deal with the rights of whistleblowers and a similar number on the adoption of access laws. In contrast, a significant percentage have committed to e-government and open data initiatives. In short, he said, the commitments focus on the efficiency of government, and on “government issues”, rather than on the rights of citizens.

The issue can be usefully understood in terms of a distinction between “infrastructure” and “content”. This distinction has been made at ICANN when discussing its operational mandate. Is it just a technical organisation, assigning numbers for domains, or is it also a “content” organisation where the actual names assigned have rights implications? Similarly, “development” often emphasises infrastructure and downplays content. A rights-based approach to development insists that both infrastructure and content are considered and that both are equally important.

For example, it is not just about connecting schools to the internet, and providing learners with tablets or even if an e-curriculum is developed (“infrastructure”), but also about how any e-curriculum deals with sex education and gender violence, or if it responds sensitively to learners’ real-life experiences online, or how it promotes free expression in the classroom, and so on. It is not just about building clinics or laying the infrastructure for telemedicine to service rural communities, but whether or not nurses are trained in sexual rights and gender equality, how they counsel people with HIV/Aids or rape survivors, how patient privacy is dealt with, and how the benefits of telemedicine are explained to people who might have very little experience with technology.

In responding to civil society reports at the ESCR committee meeting at the HRC, Macedonia not only presented infrastructure statistics on development, but mentioned, for example, a programme on hate speech that it is rolling out to civil servants, in that way making the link between development and rights. But this did not come across consistently in all its responses. How systematic, specific and thorough the indicators for “content” are – indicators that should use the ESCR covenant as their starting point but develop tangible projects, initiatives and plans based on this – suggests the extent to which a government embraces a rights-based approach to development.

  • To know more about the Human Rights Council and what is at stake for internet rights, read our brief .
  • To know more about economic, social and cultural rights, follow our ESCR project .

Image by MIKI Yoshihito used under Creative Commons license.

« Go back