The MEDA Approach: Human Rights in Business

A woman from MEDA’s GROW project exercising her economic rights protected under 2 of the 9 core human rights instruments: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

The international development industry’s understanding of human rights stems from a commitment to the fulfillment of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a seminal document for human rights policy and goal-setting. More recently, development actors have used the fundamentals as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to consider and express the dynamic relationship between duty-bears, right-holders and responsibility bearers.

“Duty-bearer” accurately describes the status of any representative government in relation to its charge to represent and protect the needs of its people. “Rights-holder” describes the imperative for all communities to self-determine by way of informing the government and public of their rights and holding them accountable in peaceful demonstration. “Responsibility-bearer” describes the mandate for all organizations to provide products and services that strengthen the rights-holder-duty-bearer relationship and increases the livelihoods of rights-holders in sustainable ways.

It is through the lens of responsibility-bearer that a broader array of entities have been engaged in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda and have aligned their operations towards the rights provisions set forward within. For example, Asian-Pacific and North American automakers are working on SDG 13 (Climate Action) obligations through measures, such as committing their manufacturing facilities to zero waste. Global Affairs Canada; the development agency of the Canadian government, supports SDG 5 (Gender Equality) by promoting its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) as a core funding strategy for Canadian international development programming. The SDGs have also inspired the creation of ethical environmental, social and governance (ESG) enterprises to reimagine the focus of corporate entities. For instance, the Benefit Certification (B Corp) indicates that businesses have made a legal and reputational commitment to consider the impact of their operations on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.

Case Study: MEDA’s Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA)

Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) is a Canadian-based international development organization that has operated for over 60 years and works towards inclusive and sustainable value chain growth. MEDA understands that while its core approach is economic development, its work touches on human rights themes as human rights not only protect peoples’ inalienable rights to sustainable livelihoods, equality, environment, and security; but also promote their right to economic and social self-determination.

Currently, MEDA has a formal Human Rights Statement of Commitment and is in the process of developing human rights-based approach (HRBA) strategies and tools that will soon be piloted in one of its projects in West Africa. MEDA intends for its human rights programing to be applied to a wide range of rights-holders; that is MEDA will not zero in on supporting a sub-group (e.g., children, refugees etc.).

MEDA aspires to assist rights-holders in claiming their rights through the lens of intersectionality. Intersectionality is a feminist theory and analytical lens coined by critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) that assesses the overlap of various social identities—such as race, gender, sexuality, and class—and identifies how cumulatively these factors contribute to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual rights-holder. For example, women experience a wage gap in the U.S comparatively with men, but black women earn just USD $0.61 while white women earn $0.77 for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts.

For many business leaders adopting an HRBA means accruing the added cost and complexity of doing business ethically – operating in industries, geographies, and with partners that adhere to internationally recognized standards. This pivot can be both daunting and operationally infeasible in the short-term as new people, processes and technology may have to be acquired and implemented to make this switch.

MEDA believes that business leaders which are educated on human rights indicators will be better at navigating moral challenges and will be able to integrate human rights policies into their bottom line. Informed business leaders will be able to capitalize on human rights opportunities as a driver for long-term growth. Business leaders can tap into customers’ awareness of socioeconomic inequalities by adopting inclusive supply chain practices. For instance, a manufacturing firm can ensure that its products are constructed in such a manner that all members of its value chain (i.e. its suppliers, production line, distributors and retailers) earn a living wage and enjoy a high-quality of life.

Business leaders can also tap into the positive publicity related to their responsibility-bearer status by promoting inclusive hiring, training and promotional practices. Higher employee retention and satisfaction are likely to follow from businesses investing in the development of their staff. In addition, business leaders can embed human rights themes into their business relations. For example, an investment firm can stipulate that it can only sell its investees to strategic buyers which also have a high ESG awareness. This ensures that the legacy of an investors’ values and stewardship will be passed on.

By embracing an HRBA approach into its programming, MEDA hopes to reinforce notions of shared value and an inclusive economy for all.

Write to the authors:

Carolyn Burns, Manager, Partnerships & Innovation,
Calais Caswell, Senior Program Manager, Gender
Yasir Dildar, Associate Director, Monitoring &Impact Measurement,
Steve Hogberg, Project Coordinator, Global Programs

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  • MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates)

    MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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