Beyond 'human rights': Finding the right language to engage communities of faith

Men and women praying in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How should the global development community engage faith-based communities on contentious issues such as LGBTI and gender equality? Photo by: Steve Evans / CC BY-NC

Global development professionals may have to think harder about the language they use when engaging with faith-based groups and faith communities around the world.

Western aid workers and donors often use the term “human rights” when confronting religiously sensitive issues such as LGBTI rights, family planning, and empowerment of women and girls. But while the term represents an important ideal shared by aid workers and religious leaders alike, it is seen within some communities of faith “as the west trying to impose cultural values on another part of the world,” according to John Blevins, acting director and associate research professor at the Interfaith Health Program at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

There is growing consensus among development institutions that boosting economic growth and tackling poverty can’t be accomplished without partnerships with the world’s religious communities and faith-based organizations. Successful partnerships between faith-based groups and big development donors prove that such collaboration works — even around faith-sensitive issues.

But as Blevins explained Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., not all communities of faith approach these issues using the same language or reasoning as the development professional. And not every religious leader is on board with the western-bred term “human rights.” As a result, aid groups sometimes find themselves in conflict with unfamiliar ideologies and making seemingly little progress toward the advancement of human rights or global health in the poorest and hardest-to-reach places.

Such frustration was evident during last week’s Religion and Sustainable Development Conference at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

Speaking about his work in Kenya and South Sudan, U.N. Population Fund Representative in Kenya Siddharth Chatterjee told a room full of development professionals and faith leaders that “basically, religions keep women as underdogs.”

Susan Hayward, director of religion and peace building at the Center for Governance, Law and Society at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said “the work of religious engagement and peace and development has tended to further the marginalization of women from decision making on peace and development.”

And Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service said the word “human rights” should be a more central part of engaging with religious groups and communities.

But while the human rights framework is important and should not be abandoned, there may be new language for development professionals to explore to achieve common moral ground with faith groups, according to Blevins.

While asking a question to a panel of development professionals actively involved in collaboration with religious groups at CSIS, he explained that Emory’s Interfaith Health Program works with faith-based organizations in Kenya, which in turn work with LGBTI communities as well as with sex workers and drug users. Blevins said that instead of using the term “human rights” to carry out their work, these faith groups “invoke their own religious traditions and religious teachings to do similar kinds of work.”

More time needs to be spent trying to expand “kinds of language that works for everyone and is not polarizing in and of itself,” acknowledged Sandra Thurman, chief strategy officer in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy.

“We have not cracked this nut at all,” said Jennifer Kates, vice president and director of Global Health and HIV Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Language is critical,” Kates stressed, but the global development community has not done a good job of “figuring out the right way to frame these discussions with different communities.”

Blevins told Devex that when the “human rights” framework becomes “politically charged,” it is important to broaden your language and tap into religious theology, such as the belief shared by Christian and Jewish traditions that human beings are created in the image of God.

“I think there’s a richness in theological language that provides a way to talk about shared values,” he said. Theologians and religious studies scholars could be valuable additions to discussions taking place within the global development community, he explained, by helping development professionals see “what religion looks like in its complexity and multiplicity.”

How do you think the global development community can expand its collaboration with faith communities without undermining human rights? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, DC, he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the United States, and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.