Three Approaches to Poverty, Part II: The Rights-Based Approach

We saw in the last post that the charity approach starts with needs. A rights-based approach, unlike a needs-based approach, sees deprivation and the inability to pursue ones’ potential not just as tragedy, but an injustice. Therefore, a development, or rights-based approach, starts with injustices and potentials.

Poverty and everything that comes along with it are injustices because every human being has rights by the pure virtue of carrying the dignity of being a human being.

But what is a right?

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists 30 articles of rights that embrace nearly every aspect of human life. The Declaration on the Rights of the Child shows what many of those mean for children.

At the most basic level, there’s the capability to be alive, to grow physically and mentally to our fullest potential, to be healthy, to be socially connected to one another. Once a person has the physical or nutritional capability to learn and think well, they have the right to develop that as far as they can through education. There are also capabilities or rights to participate in society and foster the capabilities of others. There is the right to leisure  to work, and to the pursuit of human flourishing.

Whether its target is large-scale economic development by supporting government roles in infrastructure, or helping individuals gain greater access to the resources around them to break the cycle of poverty, the development approach seeks to maximize access to rights.

The Experience of Coptic Orphans

Coptic Orphans took this approach into all our programs in 2007, and saw tremendous advantages over the charity approach.

First,  We always made a covenant with children that they could stay in the program only as long as they also stayed in school and made academic progress. But now, we trained our 90% volunteer workforce, who we call our “Reps,” to set goals with families and see help as a means to meet those goals, instead of mere hand-outs.

Second, we gave children, their mothers, and volunteers workshops on how to use what they have, where they are. How can they make the best use of the school system? How can they gain access to the resources that are rightfully theirs, such as national ID cards, national health insurance cards? How can we teach them to challenge the injustices that they face at school like physical abuse, instead of taking it passively? We focused even more on finding creative ways to help children gain greater access to education. We looked for children’s talents, and found opportunities like tutoring to help children cultivate those talents.

The third step was to get families economically self-sufficient. B’edaya,  a micro-credit program for widowed mothers of children in our flagship program, was a big part of our answer to this.

This approach avoided many of the dangers we saw in the charity approach.

It’s participatory, because children now are full partners in finding the resources around them to get out of poverty. We’ve seen children start giving back as a result, like teaching others in their village how to read.

It’s been sustainable, because children internalize an awareness of what they are capable of, and how they can overcome the injustices that stand in their way. Even after help stops, they can often apply what they’ve learned to keep overcoming new obstacles. Families who are now economically self-sufficient don’t need handouts. As one priest told us that he’s seen that Coptic Orphans families “are no longer on the charity rolls of the Church,” unlike other poor families who end up dependent for generations.

Finally, it eliminates shame, because children are no longer the passive recipients of assistance; they are gaining tools like education that actually increase their sense of dignity.

This was the key that helped us begin to see more kids go on to college, rise to the tops of their classes, and even gain rare full scholarships to the American University of Cairo.

A recent Serve to Learn volunteer, Mariam Magar, writes about how she saw the contrast between a needs-based and rights-based approach firsthand in Egypt:

Although all the families lived in neighboring towns, we consistently saw a stark difference between the non-Coptic Orphans families and the Coptic Orphans ones. The children in the former were shy, embarrassed, refused to take pictures with us, and clearly treated our gifts as alms. In contrast, the children in every Coptic Orphans family we visited, whether toddlers or recent college graduates, were confident, comfortable talking to us, welcomed taking pictures with us (and even asked for copies to memorialize our visit), accepted our gifts as gifts, and treated us as family.

A New Approach: Transformational Development

The development approach is much better than the charity approach. But does it go far enough as a Christian approach? Is there anything distinctive that Christians doing development can contribute? Or as Dr. Chris Sudgen asked on behalf of World Vision, “are we just Oxfam with a prayer meeting?”

In 1983, a group of development thinkers came together at Wheaton College to answer the question: how should our faith guide development work, whether as donors, volunteers, or NGO workers? It was they who first coined the term, “transformational development,” to describe what a development approach might become when done in and for Christ.

But then they had another question to answer, one that Christians in development have been working out ever since: what does it mean to do development in and for Christ?

Stay posted. In a week or so, I’ll be posting the 7 characteristics of a transformational development approach that I have seen emerge among reflective Christian practitioners during the last 20 years.

About Nathan Hollenbeck

Nathan joined Coptic Orphans in 2006. It was his response to a call to help return Egypt’s hospitality to the Holy Family on behalf of Christ Emmanuel and the Theotokos, after they changed his own life as a youth. He has a passion to fulfill God’s command to “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV)