A human rights-based approach: moving along the right track?

Louisa Gosling, WaterAid’s Programme Manager – Principles, discusses the development of a human rights-based approach at WaterAid, and its contribution to goals for equity and inclusion in WASH provision.


10 Dec 2014

The human rights-based approach is a development framework that is central to how many international development actors work towards changing power imbalances that exclude and marginalise people. For WaterAid, the UN’s recognition in 2010 of the human rights to water and sanitation provided a framework for our efforts to achieve universal access to WASH.

The human rights-based approach has significant implications for the way in which organisations set priorities and objectives – particularly so for WaterAid. We published an article in the Waterlines journal about the experience of developing the approach within our organisation. WaterAid is developing its capacity to reach the poorest and most marginalised people through a gradual shift to a human rights-based approach.

A timeline of our experiences

We began to work on a more explicit human rights-based approach in 2005, when we developed ‘citizens’ action’ projects to strengthen demand for services in West Africa.

In 2008 we began work on the Child Rights and WASH project with Save the Children Finland. This was designed to promote more meaningful participation of children in WASH, and strengthen the culture and mechanisms of accountability amongst parents, communities and governments towards WASH provision, thereby leading to lasting positive impact for children.

These initiatives were followed by the Governance and Transparency Fund programme – a joint five year initiative funded by the UK Department for International Development, intended to increase the participation of national ‘Southern’ civil society organisations in international discussions and governance.

The launch of our internal Equity and Inclusion Framework followed in 2010 – the first conscious move to mainstream non-discrimination, and move towards a human rights-based approach in all areas of WaterAid's work.

Yet, despite progress on developing accountability and reaching the most marginalised people, we needed a major shift to fully integrate the approach. In 2012 we began an internal pilot called the ‘Human rights-based approach action learning initiative’, which developed a human rights lens through which we could assess projects from start to finish. We applied it in eight of our country programmes. This ongoing initiative is designed to help us learn by doing and build our confidence in applying a human rights-based approach effectively.

To complement this internal learning, the discussions on equity, inclusion and rights that WaterAid led for the Rural Water Supply Network enabled the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Water and Sanitation to respond to practical concerns of network members. The discussions informed the development of a rights handbook, launched in September 2014 and WaterAid country programmes will help to distribute this to WASH stakeholders.

Lessons learned so far

  • A detailed and participatory analysis at the beginning of human rights-based approach projects is vital to the depth and traction of subsequent work.
  • We have insights into the time, skills and resources needed to support the most marginalised people to participate in a meaningful and ethical way.
  • We have increased our understanding of accountability at local and national levels; key stakeholders in relation to WASH and other relevant rights, and how to establish links between them; and practical ways to develop awareness of that accountability.
  • The equity and inclusion agenda enjoyed widespread commitment in WaterAid and helped us develop a practical understanding of discrimination in terms of access, and how to adapt programmes to overcome it.
  • We have begun to make more explicit links between rights to WASH and rights of children and disabled people, rights to education and health rights of women.
  • Working with community-based WASH approaches provides a strong basis for establishing responsibilities of WASH users to help realise the rights of other users, and claims their own rights from duty-bearers.
  • We can make more use of rights in post-2015 targets and goals, and increase awareness of the potential of legal frameworks to strengthen accountability.
  • We have increased our knowledge and use of tools such as budget tracking, mapping, and supporting sector monitoring. We achieved recognition of the importance of accessible information.

Challenges we still face

Our consistent commitment to reach everyone, everywhere with WASH, and to the widespread adoption of the human rights-based approach across the development sector are significant supporting factors for developing this approach. However, WaterAid still faces several challenges and questions.

These include internal challenges, such as collating and building on our experiences, and our (and our partners') historical focus on delivering services directly. There are also external challenges, such as doubts on behalf of many practitioners about whether a human rights discourse can effect change among the technical, resource and capacity constraints of the WASH sector. Concerns also exist that encouraging people to claim rights can detract from personal responsibility for development.

At the same time, we need to be clear about roles and responsibilities. How do we support excluded people in asking for their rights without disempowering them? How do we build the capacity and accountability of governments towards the progressive realisation of these rights without supplanting them?

More work is certainly needed before we can operate effectively within a rights framework, but the more we engage with the human rights-based approach, the more we will contribute to achieving universal access to WASH.

For more information on the rights to water and sanitation, please visit

Louisa Gosling is WaterAid’s Programme Manager – Principles. She tweets as @LouisaGosling1 and you can read more of her work here.