Rights-based approaches to disaster response and risk reduction

A rights-based approach shifts us away from viewing crisis-affected populations as the objects of charity or as passive recipients and towards recognizing their agency and rights as citizens. In this framework, disaster-affected communities are rights holders and governments are duty bearers who have an obligation to address the needs of their citizens. The Responsibility to Protect principle argues that in contexts where governments are unable or unwilling to respond to the needs of their citizens, the international community has an obligation to provide humanitarian assistance and protection. At its best, such responses involve international non-government organizations like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) supporting the efforts of local civil society organizations who are often first responders to crisis.

In the context of humanitarian crises, a rights-based approach means that governments have the primary duty to ensure citizens have access to humanitarian assistance and to reduce overall vulnerability to disasters. With the support of MCC, local partner organizations play an important role in mobilizing community members around their right to assistance and in holding governments accountable for the delivery of government programs under existing legislation. In the absence of such a legal framework, MCC partners meet urgent needs and facilitate the formation of community-based organizations that are able to speak collectively to governments regarding their needs and priorities. This brief article compares ways in which MCC partners in India, Ethiopia and Colombia are implementing a rights-based approach in response to humanitarian crises in order to reduce disaster risk.

In India, where acute seasonal food insecurity remains a chronic problem for millions of Indian citizens, the federal government has instituted some of the most progressive food security legislation in the world through a series of measures under the Food Security Act. This includes national legislation, specifically the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). Under MNREGA the government guarantees that all rural citizens have access to 100 days of seasonal employment, that is, daily wages in exchange for participation in the construction of public works.

In the nine years since its enactment, the implementation of the scheme has been patchy, with many citizens unaware of their right to seasonal employment in their communities. The impact of the legislation is also limited by a lack of knowledge, adequate resource allocation and implementation by local- and state-level governments. Long-time MCC partner in India, the Church Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), implements a seasonal food-for-work scheme in communities where the government scheme is lacking or only partially implemented. In addition to filling the government void by providing access to food, CASA’s Food for Community Mobilisation project—supported by MCC’s account at Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB)—seeks to educate and mobilize citizens to claim their right to employment under MNREGA. Increasing the number of citizens who have access to government employment is a key project outcome that CFGB, MCC and partners are supporting and monitoring.

In Ethiopia, MCC, in cooperation with several local partners, supports seasonal cash- and food-for-work projects. Like India, the government of Ethiopia has also implemented a national employment scheme—the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP)—that aims to address predictable and preventable seasonal food insecurity. The coverage of the PSNP is inadequate, with government figures underestimating the number of people that require assistance.

In contrast to India where seasonal employment is a right or “guarantee,” the PSNP in Ethiopia is not enshrined in any legislation and its implementation is at the discretion of international donors, policy makers and bureaucrats. In collaboration with district-level government, MCC partners implement parallel cash- and food-for-work schemes to provide greater access to social protection. While MNREGA in India is a right, and therefore demand-driven, in Ethiopia community members have no recourse to claim their right under the PSNP (Tessitore, 2011).

Community mobilization through the formation of self-help groups and district level community associations is, however, a key component of all of the projects in Ethiopia and encouraged by local government. These groups provide opportunities for community members collectively to set local priorities, build mutual self-reliance by saving and sharing resources and provide a platform for dialogue with local government.

Through the formation of community-based organizations and community mobilization, citizens are able to hold their governments accountable in order to realize their rights. For Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, the director of Sembrandopaz, an MCC partner in Colombia, community empowerment is fundamental to addressing the needs of communities displaced by conflict. Community development, he says, has two wings: economic
development and political action. Through community organizing and mass mobilization facilitated by Sembrandopaz, Colombian citizens displaced by government military, para-military and rebel groups have been successful in some cases in receiving reparations from the national government.

Another MCC partner, Mencoldes, works with displaced persons in Colombia to access government services. In addition to providing food assistance and access to other essential household items, Mencoldes plays a critical role in informing conflict-affected families of government services available to internally displaced persons and providing legal support where such services are unfairly denied.

With case studies like this in mind, what might the implications be of a right-based framework for MCC’s program? At least four principles present themselves:

1. Local civil society partners should play an important role in educating and mobilizing citizens around their rights to government schemes and services.

2. Where government programs are absent, implementation is patchy or programs lack legislative guarantees, partner organizations can fill gaps by providing humanitarian assistance, social protection and social services.

3. Group formation and community organizing (i.e. self-help groups, local associations, village savings and loan groups) should be integrated into disaster response project design in order to assist affected groups to increase their voice to government and build
mutual self-reliance.

4. International non-governmental agencies, such as MCC, and local partner and civil society organizations need to incorporate participatory approaches to project design, monitoring and evaluation. This ensures greater adherence to international minimum humanitarian standards and thus increases the likelihood that the priority needs of affected groups are met.

A rights-based approach ensures that the rights of citizens are at the centre of governmental and non-governmental agency responses to disasters. In India, Ethiopia and Colombia, community empowerment alongside humanitarian assistance helps citizens achieve their rights and reduces long-term disaster risk.

Bruce Guenther is disaster response director for Mennonite Central Committee and is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.

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