Cities and local governments have a crucial role to play in the implementation of economic and social rights — the rights to housing, to food, to health or to education. In most countries, it is at municipal level, and with municipal budgets, that social housing projects can develop; that land zoning ordinances are adopted, allowing improved linkages between cities and their rural hinterland; that hospitals and health care centres are established; and that schools are set up and teachers paid. Moreover, it is often at the local level that social protection is delivered to the local population.

In his address to the plenary session of the World Human Rights Cities Forum, the Special Rapporteur explains why municipal policies in these areas would be further strengthened if grounded in the normative framework of human rights, and if benefits to be provided are defined as legal entitlements, that beneficiaries can claim before independent bodies.

First, this would transform the relationship between service providers and users, improving accountability. A rights-based approach would reduce the risks of discrimination and corruption in the delivery of goods and services essential to lead a decent life. It would also reduce the rates of non-take-up of benefits, which often stem from the fear — or the shame — of users, who do not want to be stigmatised as depending on public charity.

Secondly, this would ensure that the services provided are adequate, in other terms, of acceptable quality. Where delivery is top-down, without accountability, municipalities and the local service providers may be tempted to “tick the boxes”, seeking to reach certain quantitative targets (number of beds in shelters for women victims of domestic violence, number of low-income families receiving food aid, percentage of children finishing high-school), but this can be at the expense of quality or adequacy of the service or good provided, in part because this is very difficult to monitor / to measure objectively. Ensuring adequacy in the provision of services would be strongly encouraged by establishing various forms of participation by the public (or the end users) in the design, implementation and evaluation of the services — and local collectivities are much better equipped to ensure direct participation than would be possible at higher levels of governance.

Third and finally, a rights-based approach to the delivery of public services in areas such as health, education or housing, also ensures that affirmative action will be taken to ensure low-income households will be prioritized, in a form of “targeted universalism” that should contribute to reduce inequalities.