Power and participation – could a Human Rights Based Approach deliver Christie?

By 10th December 2021 Blogs, News

One Thursday in June I started the day feeling – more or less – like a confident, capable adult. By mid-morning I was in a Child Planning Meeting and within minutes found myself in the role of ‘grateful recipient of services’. At the wrong end of a power dynamic, my confidence and voice deserted me. Where I should have been shaping the conversation, it felt like professionals were in the driving seat.

Why does this matter?

It matters because it’s an example (albeit a small one) of the gap between public services envisaged by Christie a decade ago – in which empowerment, participation and person-centred approaches are key – and the reality that people experience daily.

I’ve read many wise reflections this year on Christie (including the excellent blog series and event curated by The Robertson Trust). They all describe the ‘implementation gap’, and have common themes of participation, relationships and a radical shift in culture.

At the heart of all of this is power – who has it, who doesn’t, how to shift and share it.

This year also marks the commitment to a new Human Rights Framework for Scotland. I suspect if Christie was written now, it would feature human rights more explicitly. What if we added human rights as a fifth pillar alongside Christie’s original four? Could that offer a tool to unlock the power shifts we need to realise the Christie vision?

A Human Rights Approach to Christie could…

  • Offer a different starting point – Human rights mean everyone is equal and has the right to a voice. Take that as our starting point and support and services look different. There are many examples, particularly within the third sector of the difference this makes – here’s just one from C-Change Scotland, which takes a human rights based approach to supporting people.In Corra’s work alongside communities we see the impact of stigma and the importance of dignity, for example in the difference made by using a term like ‘food share’ instead of ‘food bank’ and talking about ‘recycling’ or ‘preloved’ rather than ‘clothing bank’.

‘The overall philosophy of Housing First is to provide a stable, independent home and intensive personalised support. Housing should be seen as a human right by all social care and support services. There should be no conditions around ‘housing readiness’ before providing someone with a home.’Mike Burns, CEO of Penumbra – blog for The Robertson Trust #ChristiePlus10

  • Provide practical tools for change – There are a growing range of examples of how a Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) offers a practical tool that can shape change at individual, service and systems levels – in local housing, health and social care, policy on drugs and alcohol, the new Social Security system and the planned public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. Another tool; Human Rights Budgeting, offers a way of ‘distributing resources in a way that puts people first’, reflecting Christie’s assertion that finances need to better meet the needs of people and communities.
  • Require a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) lens – The past 18 months have shown the stark inequalities and deep-rooted discrimination that existed before the pandemic, and are worse because of it. A Human Rights Based Approach to ‘building forward better’ would include non-discrimination (one of the core principles of the PANEL[1] Human Rights Based Approach), helping to realise Christie through an equalities lens.

‘A deeper cultural shift is also required reflecting the Christie principle of meaningful participation. People experiencing these hard edges must shape the services, support and budgets they need.’ – Jim McCormick, The Robertson Trust ‘Signals in the noise: getting to grips with poverty (Challenge Poverty Week 2021)

  • Support participation, equal relationships and a shift of power towards communities – These are arguably the most fundamental issues in realising Christie (or not).There is increasing recognition of how important participation is, but often this is closer to consultation or engagement. A Human Rights Based Approach means people with lived experience shaping the resources, decisions and support that impact their lives.Human rights are sometimes perceived to be about confrontational relationships, however a Human Rights Based Approach used well can help avoid conflict and support people to work through highly complex issues. It also brings an inherent focus on accountability, with mechanisms for rights holders to hold duty bearers to account.

‘I’m involved in something that is so important because it’s not just the right to a house, the right to a home, it’s connected to everything else. It should be a seamless process. And it would be a lot easier if it was a seamless process… [but] I found myself going from mistrust of the council to you know, they are all right, they are human beings as well.’ – Local resident in Housing Rights in Practice: Lessons learned from Leith (Scottish Human Rights Commission, May 2020)

‘What is independent philanthropy for? Doing things that others don’t do, things that are a bit unpopular, that raise questions, help even up the playing field to support participation so that people who need change set the agenda for change, and determine if that has been delivered.’ – Martin O’Brien, Social Change Initiative and formerly Atlantic Philanthropies in Bold and Fearless, Towards a human rights funding agenda for Scotland (March 2021)

Plans for the new human rights law have many echoes of Christie. They’re equally – perhaps even more – aspirational, with potential to make a difference to the things that matter daily – housing, health, food, education, family, our environment… And we have just as much potential to find ourselves, ten years later, wondering why we haven’t succeeded.

The thing that will make the difference is where the power lies, and whether (or not) it shifts.

It is civil society – communities, activists, organisations – that will be the key to whether the new law is transformative, or not. Power will not move towards communities without concerted work and resources. Change happens when it is driven by the people who need change most.

It’s never been more important for us to collaborate and nurture the approaches that Jim McCormick describes as ‘signals in the noise’. Those signals should be our way-markers towards really ‘building forward better’, with equity, solidarity and bold change in our sights.

[1] PANEL stands for: Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Empowerment, Legality.

Over the past two years Making Rights Real, Human Rights Consortium Scotland and Corra Foundation have been working to support a dialogue among independent funders, and human rights organisations. This work is building connections, understanding and relationships, with the goal of developing a human rights funding agenda for Scotland.

In addition to the pieces referenced in this blog, it also reflected on:

#ChristiePlus10 – Children and families must become the centre of re-imagined public services, Mary Glasgow, Children 1st

#ChristiePlus10 – Re-imagining the change, Carolyn Sawers, Corra Foundation

Scotland in a post-pandemic world, Chris Creegan and Adam Lang for the RSA

Christie 10-years on, Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland

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