What can LGBT activists teach development communicators?

Pose the question ‘what is the purpose of the UN?’ and you will hear a cacophony of replies – some unprintable. Ask a UN official and what they should tell you is that the UN’s primary purpose is to promote, protect and propagate the compendium of universal human rights.

The vast interconnecting system of fundamental freedoms is the bedrock upon which a progressive world can be built. It is the gold standard. When debating global health issues or economic development or instances of wasted aid, the bottom line argument is that rights are inalienable, indivisible and equal to each other – oh and, by the way, if that moral weight doesn’t crush your argument, then remember, they are agreed by most countries in the world and underpinned by binding legislation at both the international and national level. Can’t argue with that.

But what if publics are unmoved by human rights?                                   

 An excellent Lexington column in a recent Economist got me thinking about this. It talked about how the gay marriage debate in the US shifted from one of ‘equal rights’ to one of ‘fairness’. This is, of course, essentially the same thing – but the frame is subtly different – and that makes the difference to how the argument runs.

To quote the article: ‘[f]or years groups seeking equality for gays drew inspiration from the civil-rights era. They talked of same sex couples unable to enjoy the same tax breaks as married couples and other such legal disparities.’

In 2008, in California, gay marriage became legal through the Appeals Court and then was outlawed again three months later at the ballot box through Proposition 8. The argument of the pro-gay marriage camp was definitely one of equal rights – bottom line, gay couples are discriminated against by having to pay higher taxes than straight couples: ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’

Now it would be simplistic – and wrong – to say the argument was lost because of its frame. But it is noticeable that gay marriage campaigns now prefer to talk of people being allowed to legally demonstrate their commitment to each other – just like straight couples are: ‘Come on – it’s only fair!’

And success in several states has followed (again there are other factors at play here too).

Let’s apply this to development communications. I once wrote about corruption in India (a vast, multilayered, ingrained problem) as a failure by the government to allow Indians to enjoy their 2nd generation social and economic human rights, e.g the right to work, the right to clean water, the right to education, etc. I stated that India was in violation of legally binding treaties guaranteeing its population those universal rights: ‘Can’t argue with the letter of the law, right?’

But in the absence of a World Police Force or World Government – and with a Security Council riven by national interests – there is no-one to enforce the legislation of human rights. So governments can – and do – sign up to them for good PR (and perhaps with good intentions) and then ignore them. 

So if governments ride roughshod over rights, why should publics care any more about them?

Obviously I’m over-generalizing, but perhaps my India argument should have focused less on global legal obligations and more on an individual’s internal moral compass. 

Don’t get me wrong – promoting human rights is undeniably a good thing, a motivator for me and many others – and a rock-hard backstop for development communications.

But legal human rights impose an obligation on people to act, whereas we are all more motivated by incentive than obligation.

I will have done my duty by helping to uphold the human rights of a child in a low-income country.

But by helping that child enjoy the same opportunities that I have had, I am making the world a fairer place – and creating fairness may well be a greater incentive.

This goes back to something I said in my last blog – that development communications should reflect the truth that, fundamentally, we are all the same.

Promoting the frame of fairness embraces an emotional understanding of our sameness; articulating the legal certainties of human rights legislation has a cold logic that may be less effective in drawing out empathy.

As the Economist’s Lexington column puts it: ‘heads you lose; hearts you win.’

UPDATE ON FEB 27th:
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s veto of a gay bill that would have sanctioned discrimination against gay people on the grounds of religious belief provides an interesting addendum. Even though it was a blatant attempt at denying equal rights to gay people, what seems to have swung it for Gov. Brewer was not the logical human rights argument, but an equally logical economic argument. She seems to have decided the bill would have hurt state businesses too much. No warm fuzzy ideas of fairness there. In public at least, the idea of branding Arizona’s religious groups as bigoted discriminators was far too politically damaging for Gov Brewer. And the possibility of being mauled by the US Supreme Court (and quite rightly so) would have been a PR disaster. But interesting that, even though the equal rights argument probably was the clinching factor here, she at least would not concede it.

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