Entrepreneurship and human rights are not frequently mentioned in the same conversation in the United States. However, in international policy, human rights and entrepreneurship are linked by many common policy goals, including enforcing the rule of law, improving infrastructure and fighting corruption. Rights necessary to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors–like the right to participate in the economy, the rights to education and information and access to credit–are considered crucial for the world’s poor. By pursuing these goals, human rights activists and entrepreneurship advocates can work together for the good of all.
Human rights are defined by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language or any other status.” Since the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, criteria has changed. Nonetheless, human rights continue to be a top priority in international law. According to the Department of State, the U.S. places an emphasis on human rights while pursuing foreign policy goals: “A central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
Human rights and entrepreneurship have the ability to reinforce one another. Hrishikesh D. Vinod of Fordham University examined the policy and advocacy goals of entrepreneurship and human rights, looking for areas for collaboration. He identified five key areas where the goals of entrepreneurs and rights advocates align: promotion of fair competition, creating infrastructure, protecting migration rights, exposing government corruption and preservation of the rule of law. Vinod describes entrepreneurship and human rights as natural allies. He notes that “their cooperation is likely to become a potent force for a worldwide progressive change.”
A study done by the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru helps to demonstrate Vinod’s argument in action. In this study, implementation of a human rights awareness and training campaign in Central Asia by a nongovernmental group increased new micro-businesses by five percent. The researchers who conducted this study urged that “the time is now ripe for acceptance of human rights approach to development of entrepreneurship as the human rights and entrepreneurship share a preoccupation not only with necessary outcomes for improving the lives of the people but also with better processes.”
The Right to Entrepreneurship
The United Nations Development Programme asserts that the rights that allow someone to start a business or become self-employed are “essential for the livelihoods of the poor.” The UNDP stresses that micro-entrepreneurship and self-employment are often the only option for the poor to generate money. Protection of these rights can impact many lives.
The right to entrepreneurship, along with other economic rights, can lead to the promotion of other social and political rights. A study commissioned by the World Bank explains the nature of the relationship: “The importance of participation in economic decision-making demonstrates how civil and political rights and socio-economic rights are mutually supportive, and why human rights recognize them to be interrelated, indivisible and interdependent.” For example, micro-credit and micro-entrepreneurship can increase economic, social and political empowerment of the poor, especially poor women. The Benazir Income Support Program offers small loans to women in Pakistan to pay for expenses and pursue entrepreneurship opportunities. However, this program did more than just bolster these women’s rights to entrepreneurship; the program also resulted in previously “unregistered” women becoming “registered,” giving them access to other social and political rights.
A 2010 study on women in rural Bangladesh also noticed a connection between entrepreneurship and other rights. Bangladeshi women often don’t have the opportunity to become formally involved in the economy. In this study, small bank loans gave them capital to start micro-businesses and increase their economic empowerment. With the ability to participate in trade, women can use their newfound security to pursue other rights as well.
In 2008, the Harvard Human Rights Journal pushed for the promotion of entrepreneurial rights of the poor. In their recommendation for the U.S. Human Rights agenda going forward, they suggested that the U.S. increase micro-entrepreneurship funding for other countries “because we know it works.” They added that it is “up to us to focus our resources on building a new generation of small entrepreneurs in the developing world.”
How Can This Impact Policy Decisions?
Knowing that entrepreneurship and human rights have the power to reinforce one another, we can create policy that accelerates both. When we protect human rights, individuals can feel empowered and safe to explore entrepreneurial endeavors. The trend works in the opposite direction as well; possessing the right to entrepreneurship can empower individuals to pursue the protection of their other rights. Economic power can allow vulnerable individuals to fight more effectively for the promotion of their rights.
This relationship demonstrates an important point for advocates of any cause: it is important think about collaboration whenever possible. There is always potential to find compromises that benefit all, and we have more in common than we expect.