Until recently, the development enterprise lived in splendid isolation from the human rights world. Individual development practitioners may well have been card-carrying members of, say, Amnesty International; they may have discussed worrying human rights trends in the countries they worked in with colleagues during the evening, with a beer on the veranda, but they did not think that any of this was their job. Doing something about human rights was the job of human rights organizations, or possibly the foreign policy establishment, but not of development workers; they vaccinated, built schools, disseminated new agricultural techniques, advised ministries. Human rights were important, surely, but clearly somebody else’s job. The same attitude prevailed (and still prevails) the other way around as well; human rights practitioners have remained largely agnostic toward matters of development and social equity (Welch 1995, 265).
Katarina Tomasevski, one of the foremost experts on the matter, described the prevailing vision well: “Development and human rights work constitute two distinct areas, where development is devoted to the promotion of economic growth and the satisfaction of basic needs, while human rights work exposes abuses of power” (Tomasevski 1989, 113–14; Sano 2000, 742; Nelson and Dorsey, 2003). Let me be clear: I am not saying that development practitioners lacked personal interest in human rights. All I am saying is that development practitioners did (and often still do) not consider human rights issues as part of their professional domain; they historically neither considered the implications of their own work on human rights outcomes nor sought explicitly to affect human rights outcomes through their work. This tendency continued until well into the 1990s, allowing the organizers of a prestigious 1999 conference on nutrition and human rights to state that “the human rights approach to nutrition is not even on the radar screen” (Haddad 1999, 14) and that “interaction between the [UN human rights machinery] and the UN development agencies has been essentially non-existent” (Jonsson 1999, 47; see also Forsythe 1997, 334; Marks 1999, 339).1