Human Rights, Power and Civic Action in Developing Societies: Comparative Analyses (completed)

The purpose of this research project is to improve our understanding of the interrelationships between human rights-based development and poverty reduction, on the one hand, and the forms and uses of power in developing societies on the other.

It has a particular focus on how the empowerment of community organisations may lead to the securing of human rights and poverty reduction.

Photo: Bård Anders Andreassen

About the project

Although human rights-based approaches to development have been increasingly adopted in the past decade, the centrality of power dynamics to processes of securing rights has only recently been put on the research agenda. Hence, there is a need for empirical research on the detailed interaction between human rights and power in specific contexts at local and national levels. This project will to provide such empirically grounded studies.

The project aims to examine and compare struggles for human rights by non-governmental actors in Cambodia, China, Ghana, Kenya, Nepal, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

It will examine the structures of power responsible for the negation and denial of human rights, as well as how human rights-promoting organisations challenge such structures.


  • To examine the socio-political and historical contexts in which rights initiatives are undertaken in the selected countries, identifying structures of power at local, national and international levels.
  • To examine the approaches and strategies of rights promoters aimed at securing rights.
  • To identify the obstacles and constraints on securing rights embedded in existing power structures.
  • To explore whether rights promoters have challenged and altered power structures, facilitating the realisation of rights.
  • To examine the capacity and agency of rights promoters, inclusive of the extent to which processes of empowerment have occurred, the constraints faced and how these are successfully tackled.
  • To synthesise lessons learnt through comparative analysis.
  • To contribute to debates about the relationship between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the larger debate conc. the relationship between democracy and human rights promotion


Project period


Scientific method, theoretical basis

The methodological approach is primarily qualitative, entailing in-depth studies of selected rights-promoting organisations within distinct country contexts. Case-study countries have been selected on the basis of their differing political contexts with regard to degrees of the differential 'opportunity structures' for successful civic action.

Within each country case, we focus on member-based social movements and non-member based advocacy NGOs, and examine their interactions with different forms of power at local and national levels in their rights-promoting efforts.

The research draws on a four-fold model of power - 'power over', 'power to', 'power with' and 'power within' - which incorporates power as domination (negative power) and power as increased capacity for social and political agency (positive power).


Norwegian Research Council


Leeds University, UK

Harvard University, USA

Institute for Policy Analysis and Research(IPAR), Kenya


Published Nov. 2, 2009 3:11 PM - Last modified Jan. 6, 2016 1:56 PM