A rights based approach to human development

“Social Forum”: Participants in the Indian chapter of the World Social Forum at a meeting on human rights in New Delhi. Credit: Eugine Muthu SJ

About 20 years ago, while visiting Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, I met with an official of an inter-governmental organization who had been posted there. He told me that he was tired of dealing with the refugees and all their demands: “They ask for things as if it were their right to have them.”

I was speechless. I could not believe that a person charged with protecting the rights of refugees could not see that the things they were asking for – food, shelter, basic dignified living conditions – were not privileges, or gifts, or favours, but human rights.

That conversation left a lasting impression on me. I think of it every time I see a refugee father hand over a child to someone on the other side of a fence for safety, or a mother choosing to go without food so that her kids can go to school. It is as if safe passage or education were a privilege for a select few, rather than a right for everyone.

“Fr Melo”: Fr Ismael “Melo” Moreno SJ, director of Radio Progreso in Honduras. Credit: Luke Hansen SJ

Today, we see the most basic rights of people trampled all across the globe: millions do not have access to food or healthcare or education or land. In recent decades the response to this reality and to “underdevelopment” has shifted from a needs-based or service delivery approach, to a rights based approach (RBA). According to this approach, peace and development are only possible if people who have been marginalized and denied their rights are empowered. It moves away from charity and handouts to transforming power relations so that everyone can develop their human potential and live in dignity.

The RBA approach fits well with Gospel values and with the Jesuit mission to be reconciled with God, with one another and with creation. We believe that human beings are made in the image of God and therefore have dignity. We are called to protect human dignity and defend human rights.

At Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) we share the experience of Jesuit partners in the Global South who are using a human rights based approach to defend and affirm the dignity of marginalized people. The RBA includes, for example, the right to food and women’s rights in India; the right to ancestral land and self-determination in Chiapas, Mexico; the right to a clean environment and economic justice in mining areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the right to freedom of expression and political participation in Honduras. In our work in Canada with schools, organizations and individuals, we take a RBA when we look at issues that affect individuals and communities in Canada and internationally. It affirms our deep belief that we all have equal dignity as God’s children and with that dignity we all have rights.

We are grateful to partners and colleagues everywhere who have joined us in this RBA work. You can read more about this work in the latest issue of the CJI Newsletter


Jenny Cafiso is Executive Director of Canadian Jesuits International (CJI).and is the assistant to the Provincial for international apostolates. To find out more about the work of CJI visit www.canadianjesuitsinternational.ca

  • Bernard Carroll, SJ
    Posted at 08:24h, 27 August Reply

    Thanks Jenny. Continue to do this good work even in the midst of the pushback from so many corners. Your work is in
    my prayer.

  • Philip Shano
    Posted at 12:05h, 27 August Reply

    Thanks for this Jenny. Human rights seem to be getting forgotten in too many places. I’m always grateful when you write from your experience.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 15:16h, 27 August Reply

    Thank you Jenny!

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