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Putting rights-based development into context:
CARE’s programming approaches in Malawi and Bangladesh

Brigitta Bode (CARE Bangladesh), Jay Goulden (CARE UK), Francis Lwanda (CARE Malawi), Elisa Martinez (CARE USA)

CARE International

21-22 February 2005

SARPN acknowledges the University of Manchester as a source of this document.
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In 1999 CARE adopted a vision for its work that emphasizes social justice, tolerance, dignity and security. This direction reflected the organization’s concerns about the shortcomings of need-based humanitarian and micro-level economic and technical interventions that addressed symptoms of poverty, rather than underlying causes. In fact, traditional programming – poverty alleviation through technology transfer and food distribution – appeared to have little long-lasting sustainable impact to assist resource-poor groups or communities to address their social, economic and political marginalisation beyond CARE’s initial intervention.

The shift in programming, however, was not merely developed in workshops, but built upon CARE’s experiences with some of its earlier initiatives of the 1990s (such as sustainable livelihoods, governance and civil society strengthening, gender and diversity, partnerships with local NGOs and CSOs). These development activities began to address the lack of effective governance and education, inequality, and social discrimination. The successes and failures of these development efforts highlighted the need for the organization to engage in a manner that a) addresses lack of voice and the ability to assert and claim rights, and b) builds solidarity among the poor and alliances with civic minded actors.

The experiences of the 1990s also brought to the fore the organization’s culture and with it its limitations in relation to development approaches that emphasize rights and social justice. Organizational hierarchy, inflexibility, lack of analytical capacity, output focus- rather than process orientation, and inadequate facilitation skills of field staff were recognized as impediments in working towards CARE’s new vision.

This paper1 discusses the ways in which CARE is addressing some of the programmatic and organizational challenges and is transforming itself into an organization with the potential to contribute to democratization processes at the community level. Drawing particularly on experiences in Bangladesh and Malawi, we discuss how CARE’s rights-based approach takes into account the political economy of localities and the larger context within which these are embedded. This requires a nuanced, tactical approach to applying rights to CARE’s programmes, rather than a standard blueprint approach.

A brief history of CARE Bangladesh and Malawi

CARE International is a confederation made up of 12 members.2 The organisation provides relief and development assistance to over 40 million people in 70 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. CARE works through a highly decentralized structure, the Country Office, with decision regarding programming strategies being made at the country level. Thus the level of adopting RBAs has been unequal, with some CARE members and Country Offices more supportive and advanced in operationalising the approach than others.

CARE started in Bangladesh in the mid1950s, largely working through flood and famine relief. Following independence in the early 1970s, CARE Bangladesh build schools and low cost housing and by the late 1970s began infrastructural development, mostly building feeder roads to connect remote villages to markets through the employment of destitute women who were paid in kind (food). In the early 1980s CARE expanded its programs in Bangladesh through agricultural projects that aimed to increase the cropping intensity of small land holders. By the early 1990s, CARE Bangladesh was responding to the need to improve communities’ access to state services and entitlements. Its programs began to link its project participants to various line ministries represented at the local level. In the late 1990s CARE’s BUILD project (under the Integrated Food Security Programme) began to work with locally elected bodies to build their members capacity in local government.

CARE formally established a Country Office presence in Malawi in December 1998 with the opening of its Country Office in Lilongwe. CARE's presence in Malawi was based on establishing a Country Office presence that was both 'light' and 'flexible'. Through the adoption of its household livelihood security (HLS) framework, CARE Malawi's program was developed around a thorough analysis and understanding of peoples livelihoods, and currently covers activities in the food security, agriculture, health, education, economic opportunities, social and economic empowerment (especially of women), safety nets, rural infrastructure and emergency sectors. CARE works with a growing number of partners and is actively involved in Malawi's emerging Civil Society coalition and networks, especially in the education, health and agricultural sectors.

Both CARE Malawi’s and CARE Bangladesh’ program strategies are guided by their Long Range Strategic Plans (LRSP) for the period 2002 to 2006. Both Country Offices’ LRSPs illustrate the way in which CARE Malawi and CARE Bangladesh have sought to embrace the cross cutting themes of rights, gender, diversity, advocacy and constituencies. This includes the need for the Country Offices to incorporate issues of rights into all its activities, by focusing not just on what people can do for themselves, but also what they are entitled to, and how they can demand development services. It also means working not just on the voice and ‘demand’ side of rights, but on engaging with the ‘supply’ side, building the capacity of duty-bearers, in government, the private sector and civil society, to live up to their responsibilities.3

  1. The authors would like to thank Frank Boeren (Assistant Country Director of CARE Bangladesh), Mary Siobhan Cleary (Change Management Consultant, CARE Bangladesh), and David Sanderson (Regional Manager for South & West Africa, CARE UK) for their valuable comments. Their suggestions have considerably improved this paper.
  2. Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Thailand, United Kingdom, and the United States.
  3. Crawford refers to this as “willing obligation” (see Crawford, S. 2004. Lessons Learnt So Far: A Guide to Rights Based Development Practice).

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