“Human Rights + Development Policy in Africa = ?” Seminar at Helsinki University on 21.5.2012

The keynote speaker was Dr. Harri Englund of University of Cambridge. He mentioned the Finnish new development policy 2012 that highlights human rights-based approach to development as an example of a recent donor phenomenon. He then provoked the audience by mentioning the phenomenon as “human rights fundamentalism,” thereby he meant that human rights activists and practitioners were increasingly becoming intolerant to alternative ideas and means. Particularly, he pointed out that the concerned people’s voices were not heard under this approach when activists’ and practitioners’ voices were louder. He stressed that human rights-based approach being “very productive” and yet “another buzz word,” “only one alternative,” and “not a final solution at all.” In my opinion, it is easy to criticize extreme cases such as fundamentalism. I feel it is more constructive if he would have focused more on actual negotiations and even struggles in complex contexts and themes. He had a few concrete anthropological examples including Maasai women’s rights and traditional circumcision practices. He criticized the way how Northern human rights activists were “obsessed with African people’s intimate private lives” by trying to stop circumcision practices. He then introduces a Maasai indigenous women’s organization as an alternative voice to listen to which has not been listened to well. However, listening to the voices of the concerned people is not simple: voices are not one but many; historically produced and reproduced ways could contradict with rights; prerequisites for expressing voices could be lacking; the global efficiency seeking neoliberalism affects everybody, to name a few. (These are all findings from my Ugandan study on human rights-based approach to disability and development.) Thus empirical theories are more than needed. In the later discussion, one Finnish Foreign Ministry official expressed the pressure from the government to call for research works that interrogate efficiencies of development cooperation. Applicability of research findings was stressed. Academics were of the view that consultants could do that but scholars of social science aim at going beyond such an existing framework/box and thus cannot correspond with the expectation of the Ministry. When it comes to myself and my own research works, why I am engaged with all these research works? That is because the current realities of persons with disabilities around the world are not equal with others without a disability and thus need to be politicized. Research works could critically investigate the realities to (modestly) attract attention to certain themes with their analysis, knowledge and theories, on one hand. On the other hand, researchers have to raise fund for research works and sometimes need to co-opt to existing frameworks and needs. As long as persons with disabilities globally experience discrimination against them, I hope research works on this theme are to be funded towards equality.