Contesting and Homogenising the “Rights-Based Approach”: Child Rights Norms in State and NGO Discourse in India
Child rights are often said to be one of those aspects of human rights discourses which have gone from being radical notions that principled issue networks advocated for, to something that state and non-state actors with diverse ideologies compete to claim. In particular, the discourse of working “rights-based” for children is claimed by both state policies, professionalised NGOs and activist groups. This paper explores “rights-based child protection” at the national and sub-national levels in India, as I ethnographically study how this notion is spread, contested and homogenised in a pan-Indian child protection programme that describes itself as a “rights-based partnership” between the state (who funds), small NGOs (who implement), a large foundation (who manages), international networks (who advocate), media (who informs), the corporate sector (who sponsors), and individual citizens (who call out violations). Does the fact that all these so-called “stakeholders”, with otherwise often competing interests, all embrace the rights-based approach to child protection mean that the child rights concept, in its journey from being a radical notion to all-encompassing buzzword, has finally “won”, or has it rather become an empty signifier without many shared values or ideals? Based on ethnographic studies of how two NGOs in different parts of India that are built on different ideologies – one emanating from a local anti-caste movement, and the other founded by a professional social worker – implement this same state programme, and work in cooperation with all the mentioned stakeholders, I explore how a “rights-based approach” can range from being a window-dressing for government social services, to the basic material of an NGO’s identity. I argue that despite the ideological differences of these two NGOs, they have to manage similar government expectations of what it means to work “rights-based”, resulting in a homogenisation of this notion, which becomes limited to ensuring the implementation of those rights that already exist on paper. As such, the role of NGOs in rights-based practices is to be “capacity builders” of duty bearers and “empowerers” of rights holders. I demonstrate how the two NGOs in this process strategically have to limit their rights-based work to a version that is compatable with the state’s – as opposed to applying the distinctive ideology they were founded on and struggle to maintain. With each their ideology, the two NGOs constantly negotiate their conflicting roles as social initiators and government scheme implementers. In sum, this multi-sited ethnography of an NGO with activist roots and an NGO with professional roots and their interaction with state, media, donors, and citizens, traces the rights concept across a national network and as such contributes to our micro-level knowledge of how competing ideologies claim, contest and homogenise the notion of “rights-based approaches”.