Making the Right
to Development a Reality

Making the Right to Development a Reality

Development is not merely a generous idea but a principle of peace, enshrined in the United Nations Charter of 1945:

“There is a clear complementarity between peacekeeping and the promotion of development. […] There can therefore be no effective peace and people security without development or development without lasting peace.”


The right to development finds its most urgent application in developing countries. That essential reality has not been altered after the processes of decolonization and globalization. Developing countries, including in Africa are not a generic destination and national trajectories in modern times have varied wildly. However, development in most parts of Africa remains highly problematic, with many states still dependent on volatile commodity prices. The continent today again finds itself at the back of the queue for the COVID-19 vaccines which will allow a return for economic normality. The right to development, and how it should be adapted and implemented, are therefore questions of the greatest urgency.

From the right OF development to a right TO development

The international right OF development emerged from demands from states deemed to be  “under-developed”, almost all evolving out of the decolonization process. It consisted of a right to aid, economic independence, and then a right to the New Economic Order claimed by the countries of the so-called “Third World”. This, it was believed, would reduce the inequality gap between countries. It quickly became apparent that for many countries the concept was not producing any meaningful results. The concept of an international right TO development replaced the right OF development during the late 1970s. This idea was no longer directed exclusively at states, but also to individuals and peoples. 

A renewed vision of African development: towards a redefinition?

The concept establishes a human right that paves the way for the recognition of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is intended to be a basis for the economic, cultural, and social development of the state and its citizens. Yet the concept can potentially be considered as an attack on sovereignty. Therefore, it is necessary to complete the latest definition of the right to development which could be approached through a new legal framework at the international level. A new legal framework is necessary because actors are both beneficiaries of the right to development as well as being obliged to act to support it. 

The main substance of this new framework should be less aid and more trade. Economic development in Africa cannot be driven forward by international aid, which has come to its limits. Yet Africa has hardly scratched the surface of its trading potential. According to the Africa Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), intra-African trade accounted for only 14.5% of total African trade in 2019, and in fact declined slightly from 2018.  

That figure, of course, understates the importance of informal free trade between African countries which needs to be brought within the formal economy so that its potential contribution to development can be fully understood. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which came into force at the start of this year is a major step forward and shows that at least part of the political will that is needed exists. Everything rests on implementation, and much will turn on whether rules of origin of products that can be traded continent-wide can be agreed and enforced. 

During the twentieth century, scientific advances, particularly in international law and human rights, access to more resources, and advances in medicine, led to economic growth and unprecedented social progress. Yet the gaps between countries widened, leaving four-fifths of humanity behind. Our generation owes future generations the completion of the unfinished task of ensuring the equality of all peoples’ access to the path of development. Achieving genuine free trade in Africa is the most promising avenue to do so.