Urban Jonsson - Executive Director at The Owls and former regional director of UNICEF, in this lecture outlines a human rights based approach to sustainable urban development. Starting from the basic premise that 'all humans are born good', he discusses how this applies to the ongoing global efforts to achieve a sustainable urban future.

mp3 iconA Rights-based Approach to Urban Development - Urban Jonsson


Dr Urban Jonsson is the Executive Director of The Owls, an international consultancy company specialized in Human Rights and Development based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Dr Jonsson is a leading authority on the Human Rights-Based Approach to Programming (HRBAP). While Senior Adviser to the Executive Director of UNICEF on HRBAP, a position he retired from in 2004, he operationalised this approach globally.  Between 1994 and 1998 Dr Jonsson served as UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia focusing on nutrition and child labour issues. He then moved to Nairobi as the organisation’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa (ESARO), focusing on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Prior to joining UNICEF, Dr Jonsson worked at the Swedish Food Research Institute (SIK) and was Head of the Planning department at the Tanzania Food and Nutrition Centre (TFNC). From 1980 until his transfer to UNICEF, Dr Jonsson was Programme Officer at the World Hunger Programme, United Nations University in Tokyo.


Over the last 20 years different concepts of city development have been discussed and applied, including ‘Inclusive Cities’, ‘The Right to the City’, ‘Urban Prosperity’, and ‘Sustainable Urban Development’. In most of these approaches the process of urbanization and the resulting outcome – The City – have often been dealt with separately.

Urban Jonsson argues that development can be reconstructed or seen as the progressive achievement of desirable outcomes through the adoption of acceptable processes. In this sense urbanization is the process that results in a desirable city. A Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Development aims at achieving human rights standards relevant outcomes, for example the right to adequate housing, through the adoption of processes that adhere to human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, inclusion and participation, and accountability and the rule of law. In a similar way the HRBA recognises the ‘City with Rights’ as a desirable outcome through the process of ‘Sustainable Urbanization’, adhering to all human rights principles.

Urban Jonsson emphasizes that it is ‘...neither a well designed and implemented urbanisation, nor a City with rights realised – it is BOTH a good PROCESS and a desirable OUTCOME. It is about the achievement of a City with Rights through an Urbanisation Process satisfying human rights principles.’

The lecture concludes with the observation by Jonsson that a massive training effort in the understanding and use of a HRBA would be required for building the capacity of key stakeholders, including relevant UN staff, to be able to use the approach in practise. He argues that HRBA should not be seen as just another ‘add-on’ in development work, but must be fully recognised as a very new form of re-constructing the reality. It is important to realise that human rights-based development is not a choice but is required by each United Nations Organisation according to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


U. Jonsson, A Human Rights-Based Approach to Programming (HRBAP), UNICEF, New York, (2004)

U. Jonsson, A human rights-based approach to programming, in P. Gready and J. Ensor (eds.) (2005),

Reinventing Development? Translating Rights-Based Approaches from Theory into Practice, Zed Books, (2005)

Toolkit:  A Human Rights Based Approach; A User-friendly guide from UN Staff in Viet Nam for UN staff in Viet Nam (2009)