East African rights activists are badly out of touch

The high-minded words of East African activists are often lost on their intended beneficiaries, many of whom are members of the rural poor. A contribution from Mali to the openGlobalRights debate, “Human Rights: Mass or Elite Movement?” and to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Florence Ochago
6 March 2014

Previously on openGlobalRights, Ron et al presented survey findings suggesting that human rights ideas and language are more widely diffused among social elites than ordinary people.

I have worked most of my life in Uganda and East Africa, but am now based in Mali. My professional experiences suggest that Africa’s realization of a true human rights culture will remain elusive until activists begin viewing these rights as part of an interdependent system encompassing all facets of daily life.

The “human rights” concept is now widely disseminated throughout Africa and has translated into many local languages across the continent. Examples include: apedorosio nuka itunganan (ateso), eddembe lyo’buntu (Luganda), obugabe bw’abantu (Runyankore), n’agateka ka zina muntu (Kirundi), uburenganzira bwa muntu (Kinyarwanda) and haki za binadamu (Swahili - the lingua franca of East Africa). It may also be referred to as eto omoniyan (Yoruba), manema a bumuntu (Tshiluba) and adamaden ka haké (Bambara).

The true meaning of “human rights” and its relevance to intended beneficiaries, however, is rarely appreciated. In East Africa, to which I confine my commentary, human rights activists repeatedly fail to link their cause with the more appealing notion of human security, which addresses a much wider and more basic range of human concerns. As a result, the notion of “human rights” remains associated in the popular mind with elites sitting in skyscrapers in Abuja, Nairobi and Addis Ababa, and remains out of reach to most ordinary people.

Human rights activists, moreover, have complicated the relevant norms and principles, rendering them arcane and incomprehensible to ordinary people. Most importantly, they have failed to engage the region’s poor and oppressed in meaningful discussion. Never mind that in real life, communities already observe and respect many of these rights, which focus on the dignity and worth of every human being.

In East Africa, human rights activists oftentimes come off as “holier than thou,” which in itself is a turnoff. For example, in many communities polygamy is still widely practised and accepted. Totally indifferent to these local values, however, human rights activists often attack this practice, alleging it violates women’s individual rights. Many ordinary people regard this advocacy for monogamy as an outside imposition, and develop feelings of revulsion for the very notion of “human rights.”

Another problem is the gap between rhetoric and reality. Human rights activists often talk about the role of states and citizens, speaking as if states really can, or will, fulfil their duties. This seems entirely unreal to most listeners, however. Given glaring incongruities between human rights precepts and practice, many people dismiss human rights ideas as mere slogans.

Thus, for example, ordinary people hear human rights activists talk of their rights to health, clean water and social services. In reality, however, people experience broken-down, dilapidated infrastructures, along with nonexistent or unmotivated service providers operating on shoestring budgets. If we are to make any inroads, human rights activists need to get off their idealistic high horses, and come to terms with practical, real-life situations.

Basic needs rule the day

For example, grassroots communities, made up mostly of the poor, are more concerned about their daily subsistence.  Meanwhile, members of the urban elite and purveyors of the human rights message are more interested in who is running for mayor. This lack of contextual synergy is a real challenge to the realization of human rights at the grassroots.

East Africa is part of sub-Saharan Africa, and over 70% of that region’s population is rural. Poverty predominates, and people typically depend on agriculture for subsistence. This renders human rights an abstract subject, as people view advocating for human rights per se as an insufficient way of dealing with their daily needs.

Human security may be a better way of approaching ordinary people. As the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) noted in its 2011 monograph on the state of human security in Africa, human security is the totality of human needs, including food, health, the environment, politics, and personal security. The absence of human security threatens the living, and human rights will remain irrelevant to the grassroots if its promoters do not address these and other vital issues.

Bridging the gap

The disconnect between promoters of human rights concepts, programs and interventions (usually locked up in some perceived “darkness”) and the rural poor is indeed a great hindrance to the realization of a truly grass-roots, human rights movement. This situation is exacerbated by the inability of national human rights institutions in East Africa to discharge their mandate due to limited and/or misapplied resources.

Here are some suggestions to help bridge the gap between human rights activism and the human security needs of communities.

  1. First, human rights groups should take advantage of other groups’ efforts to provide human services. For example, activists can join forces with those seeking to reduce poverty and malnutrition and jointly promote the right to food. Send A Cow Uganda, for example, has successfully tackled the right to food and promoted good health at one go. Through the promotion of sustainable and diversified farming systems, they enhance food security and support diet diversification. FIDA (Uganda), to take another example, has addressed both security fears and the right to justice by providing services such as legal aid, legal education, public interest litigation, and legal advocacy for the indigent. At the same time, they consistently and often successfully demand quick and fair dispensation of justice for the poor and vulnerable.
  2. Human rights activists must ask people what they need and want, and then figure out how best to help them. They should begin by asking specific communities how to better implement a specific human right, and then see what their organizations can do to help the community achieve that goal, rather than vice versa. A case in point is support by the African NGO, ACCORD, which helps communities in post-genocide Rwanda realise their right to shelter, and helps orphans or separated minors access land and property.
  3. Human right activists must demonstrate, in concrete ways, that they can work with people from other sectors, as well as from governments and political parties. Today, rights activists tend to demonize and antagonise political and other key actors, rather than building collaborative and cross cutting strategies.

Human rights activists must do more to collaborate with others, address communities’ most basic needs, and prove their added value. To do otherwise would be to keep our heads in the sand.


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