What is Human Rights Budgeting?

The primary goal of a human rights budget – also called a People’s Budget - is to meet people’s needs and advance equity. To achieve that, budget and revenue policy must be grounded in five human rights principles: universality, equity, transparency, accountability and participation. These principles should guide the design, implementation and assessment of all federal, state and local spending and tax policies. Human rights budgeting flips the way we make public budgets: rather than adjusting spending to available revenue, revenue policy follows a needs-based budget. Compared to current budgets, human rights budgeting requires an entirely different process: A budget must be crafted to directly address fundamental human needs (rather than match revenue estimates). Budgeting decisions must be explicitly connected to accountability measures, so that we can assess people’s needs, and evaluate progress and outcomes in meeting those needs, using indicators based on human rights principles. People must be able to participate in the entire budget process, especially in developing goals and priorities for spending and raising money. The budget process must be fully transparent. Revenue policy must follow from spending policy — not the other way around - and seek to fund a needs-based budget in an equitable way. A budget based on human rights aims to ensure the well-being and dignity of everyone in our communities and to advance equity by lifting up those most in need. This simple vision requires starting any budget process with people’s needs and participation instead of estimates of available money. Once we recognize that the current budget process has it all backwards, and that we need to change goals and priorities, we gain a fresh perspective on the annual budget debates. What would rights-based spending and tax policies look like? Budgets should be developed and decided in a participatory process, guided by human rights principles, so spending and tax policies would be shaped by people’s input. To be compatible with human rights, needs-based spending would include funding the provision of public goods to all, as well as targeted initiatives to prioritize the deepest needs, especially those arising from structures of oppression. For example, the federal budget could move funds from items such as military, criminal justice and surveillance to a just transition process that prioritizes economic, social and environmental initiatives geared at realizing rights. An equitable tax code could include higher marginal income tax rates, a financial speculation or Robin Hood tax, wealth or luxury taxes, income-sensitized environmental taxes, along with innovative approaches such as a company-level payroll tax rate that is proportional to the wage disparity between executives and workers. The use of tax expenditures as a policy tool would be limited to addressing equity-related concerns. What tools and resources exist for human rights budgeting? To start out, watch our People's Budget short animated film and read the FAQs. Other resources: People’s Budget webinar (recording) Presentation on human rights budgeting International background: mapping of human rights budgeting and rights-based indicator systems Many more tools and sample campaign materials have been developed and piloted by NESRI and the Vermont Workers’ Center as part of Vermont’s People’s Budget Campaign. These are tools for human rights budgeting at the state level, yet they can also inform city level initiatives. Sample People’s Budget bill People’s Budget Workshop Facilitator Guide Participation in human rights budgeting and participation proposal for Vermont Contact NESRI (peter[at]nesri.org) for more information or if you’d like advice on developing your own human rights budgeting campaign.