Throughout the 1990s the debates about human rights and development have increasingly converged. The article asks whether the emerging human rights‐based approach to development, honed in the period of revisionist neo‐liberalism, can deliver meaningful improvements to the African crisis.It begins by outlining the evolution of the rights‐based development agenda in order to understand how the present agenda is defined. The next section examines the theoretical underpinnings of the current rights‐based development agenda and summarises two recent reports which place such concerns at their centre. From there we examine the implementation of rights‐based procedures in Africa and assess the moral and practical implications of the rights agenda for Africa. We conclude by arguing that the emphasis on economic and developmental rights should be welcomed, because it raises the possibility of cementing the right to a decent standard of living. However, the potential exists for the rights‐based agenda to be used as a new form of conditionality which usurps national sovereignty and by handing the responsibility for defending rights to authoritarian states the process does little to challenge the power structures which may have precipitated rights abuses in the first place. Finally, the emphasis on universal rights, as defined through largely western experiences, limits the relevance of rights to local circumstances and thereby effects another form of Eurocentric violence which seeks to normalise a self‐serving social vision. Hence, only by embedding discussions of rights in the locally meaningful struggles that confront impoverished Africans and by promoting broader and direct participation which, crucially, promotes self‐determination can a rights agenda more thoroughly promote African development.