News Focus: Promoting human right is not just about formulating law – social science is needed for social change

20 January 2014

Lok Bhattarai

Opinion piece: The Campaign site gives many examples of how social science has helped our society. In this article Dr Lok Bhattarai, of the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, Leeds Metropolitan University, uses his expertise on Nepal to show how policy advocacy fails to deliver the desired outcome when social science is not made an important part of decision-making:

All attempts at social change and economic development need to make use of the rich knowledge and methodological strengths of social science. Unfortunately that does not often happen in developing countries, and the work of international development agencies in Nepal is an example of this.

Many development agencies in Nepal have incorporated a human rights-based approach in their agendas. As an example of this they have focused on codifying the legal rights of marginalised and vulnerable groups and as a result, the Nepalese government has quite readily passed acts outlining the rights of these groups.

This appeared to be an ideal achievement at the time. But instead what was apparent was that most development agencies did not understand what works and what does not in the local context. They did not appear to have understood the fact that the codification of rights was not enough, and was essentially ineffective in a country like Nepal, where the actual social process was primarily determined by de facto power relations.

Very little investigation was made of social contexts, and public consultations seldom occurred before drafts laws were presented for endorsement; there was usually not even any intensive discussion in Parliament before they become law. In most cases laws are drafted in very ambiguous language, and no information is given explaining how they will bring about change in existing social or political orders, relations or structures.

The promulgation of the relevant laws in the partner country is cited as evidence of success for local posts of international development agencies in their reports to their headquarters in Western European countries. But people in these donor countries often estimate the power of a formal law from the Western viewpoint, where the rule of law is often strong and well founded, and not from the point of view of the Nepalese, where this is not the case.

To give some examples:

There was a strong lobby from development agencies in the last decade for the enactment of abortion rights for women, and, as always, the Nepalese government fell into line by passing legislation. The resulting law gave opportunities for women to decide on abortions under certain conditions. The advocacy organisations presented this as a big success and celebrated it as a milestone for women’s liberation. But evidence is now piling up that this law has been fundamental in putting women and girls in situations of extreme insecurity: the abortion rate is rising steeply, and it is suspected that the women’s families are pressuring them into having an abortion once they find out the sex of the unborn child is female.

Some provisions for older people’s rights were included in parts of the Senior Citizen’s Act to allow them to draw upon the state’s resources for their health and social care. Groups of older people put forth their demands for the implementation of a law that would underline their rights, but the government remained unresponsive. An appeal was subsequently brought to the Supreme Court, which later returned its verdict on behalf of the appellants. But despite this legal victory, older people in the country are still unable to enjoy their rights and are not receiving the support ensured by the law because there is a serious lack of state mechanisms and accountability to enforce their rights.

A third example is an act which reconfirmed the family’s role and responsibility to raise, care for and support their children. But the act simply featured the same things that had been considered societal norms for generations and that other existing laws had already covered. A significant section of the public was expecting the increased role of the state in welfare and the care of children and older people, but they remained unheard. What Western-led advocacy organisations thought was progress in human rights was simply a restatement of the status quo.

Thus, in all these cases, proper use of social science is lacking, and these are fundamental shortcomings which make it impossible to identify the right policy or legal directions which would yield more sustainable, equitable and socially acceptable outcomes.

An in-depth understanding of social history, culture, sociology, power relations, social psychology, civil service, and the nature of legal system is essential in order to make informed policy advocacy for social change and economic development in developing countries, just as it is in developed countries.

Dr Bhattarai develops his theme in another opinion piece.