Community and Societal Development

How can cross-cultural development workers help communities and societies thrive by following godly principles?

Adopting a Human-Rights Based Approach to International Development

WCIU Journal: Community and Societal Development Topic

May 21, 2018

by Stanley Arumugam

The original full article in the Koers Bulletin for Christian Scholarship (Vol 79, No 2 [2014]) can be found here. Excerpts are re-published in the WCIU Journal with the permission of the author.


Despite the best efforts of international development agencies, the scale of global poverty still remains at a de-humaning level. Religion as a key factor in understanding and alleviating poverty has until recently been ignored by international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). This article attempts systematically to explore the humanitarian efforts of Western evangelicals in the global South; their engagement with the predominantly secular INGO sector, and their response to addressing poverty as a human rights issue. Lessons for evangelical engagement in the South African context will also be explored briefly.

There is a great opportunity for both the INGO sector and evangelicals to learn from and work with one another, instead of ‘demonising’ the other (see ActionAid 2012).

Secularism as the Dominant Ideology of International Development

The predominant change paradigm of economic development heralding the United Nations’ (UN) ambitious development plan in the 1970s and 1980s failed in large part because it did not deal with the root causes of poverty, including the centrality of religion, especially in the global South. The big idea of “development,” derived from the Cold War politics of the United States of America (USA) and Europe, reduced international development efforts to an economic solution: “get ountries to be economically viable and poverty will be alleviated.”

The underlying thesis of secularism, that is, suggesting that religion is unimportant and that it will become redundant as nations develop, has been denounced as an ideological and doctrinal project requiring urgent revision as witnessed by the worldwide resurgence of religion in the late 20th century (Gelot 2012).

Secularism as the dominant Western development paradigm remained unchallenged until the last decade. Many INGOs and institutional donors such as the World Bank and the European Union (EU) traditionally excluded religion from their development policies. A significant manifestation of secularisation has been the institutional separation of religion and politics in Europe that the continent exported to other parts of the world, especially during colonialism.

Role of Religion in International Development

At a recent international development conference hosted by Uppsala University, Sweden, in 2013, the focus was on religious civil society actors as key agents of development change and new partnerships with development sector professionals. The new partnership has also brought to the fore differences in perspectives and values, and has raised questions on how to respect and strive to overcome these in a genuine partnership of religious actors with development sector professionals (Moksnes & Melin 2013). With diminishing government involvement in social programmes both locally and internationally, NGOs with a religious orientation have the potential to make significant contributions to the development arena and may prove to be the most effective and lasting of the development agencies (Mayotte 1998).

Historical Review of Evangelical Engagement in Development

For centuries, major world religions have been actively involved in and committed to humanitarian care and human development and much longer than the modern international development sector. From a Christian perspective, the themes of social justice, the dignity of the human person, and concern for the poor, the oppressed, and marginalised are at the heart of Christian scriptures.

Sadly, the colonial history of Christian missions shows a reductionist approach to salvation and human development and has been criticised for its other-worldly focus, its alliance with prevailing power structures, and its disregard for indigenous cultures and values. Interestingly, Shik (1983:168) argues that the same critique holds true for international development which is more similar than different in the following ways: (1) association with imperial powers; (2) Western models as superior, treating indigenous cultures as heathen or under-developed according to a Western norm of development; (3) people become the objects of the missionary message or the development programme, which is imposition and not partnership; (4) both obsessed by different versions of salvation—saving souls and saving the world. Given these similarities, both paradigms of secular international development and global Christian missions are flawed in their reductionist approach to the plight of the poor.

A brief survey of American and British evangelical social engagement will be useful in facilitating an understanding of both its significant impact on social change and also on the underlying ideological tensions which makes sacred/secular development partnerships challenging.

Evangelical social action movements took place in Britain and in parts of Europe, culminating in what evangelical theologian John Stott (2006) describes as a “turning point for the worldwide evangelical constituency.” The significant event was the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization held in 1974. The conference declared that “evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty”; since then, the commitment to social action has grown in the global evangelical community. One such global movement still making a significant impact is the Micah Network—convened in Oxford in 2001 with 140 Christian leaders representing those involved with the poor from 50 countries with the idea of “Integral Mission.” According to Chester:

Integral Mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ (Chester 2002, 2-3).

As a final reflection on the history of evangelical commitment, the Lausanne Movement in its “Cape Town Commitment of 2010” illustrates the dynamic nature of modern evangelical commitment to social action which seems to be characterised by ambiguity. Despite its radical founding vision in the 1970s, in 2010 it seems to make a rather weak commitment to eradicating poverty through active social action, especially in partnership with evangelicals in the global South (see Green 2011). The old tension of the “primacy of evangelism” seems to resurface and dominate current dialogue—still largely driven by Western evangelicals with an ambiguous commitment to global human rights.

This historical survey of Christian “development” illustrates the pioneering tradition of evangelical commitment to development which needs to be celebrated. There is also a need to revisit evangelical social action in light of the growing global challenge of poverty as a human rights issue and the need for multi-faith and secular development partnerships necessary for sustainable impact.

Towards a Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) in Development

Several Christian international development agencies such as Christian Aid and World Vision have adopted the HRBA without idealising its secular values. In practice, this approach promises to bring about a more sustainable hange in the lives of the poor. A commitment to identifying and dealing with the root causes of poverty in solidarity with the poor shifts the agency of intervention from outside benevolent agencies (whether secular or Christian) pursuing their development agenda to an insider approach based on the lived reality of the poor. This approach of identifying with the experience of the poor is not new but has been central to Christian theology and more evidently to the development of liberation theology.

Evangelicals and Human Rights

This section explores the biblical imperatives for human rights engagement and then examines modern evangelical positions on human rights. Christian anthropologist Paul Hiebert reminds us of the contextual nature of Christian engagement in society:

How can the gospel of Jesus Christ be incarnated in human contexts so that people understand and believe, societies are transformed, and the kingdom of God is made manifest on earth as it is in heaven? (Hiebert 2009, 33).

Taking seriously the incarnation of Christ, we recognise that God has entered our worldly reality not to provide us an escape as secularists argue but to enable us to act as his agents of change. [See the free download of the WCIU Press book, Agents of International Development and Shalom]

The Christological Imperative:

Christ was crucified because his passion for God included his liberating compassion to protect and heal human life, even when his divine mission clashed with the cultural and religious norms and institutions of his day.

The Biblical Imperative:

In the Bible … we find that God has no other passion than to make human life fully human. This is evident in God’s hearing and responding to the plight of the oppressed Israelites and in the special care of the codes of law providing for the poor, slaves, orphans, widowed, and strangers. “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3, RSV).

Despite its centrality to holistic development approaches, many evangelicals continue to advocate a separation of human rights as a secular ideal distinct from a biblical approach to social action. In America, conservative Christian politics plays into this separation of human rights as an unintended consequence of free enterprise. In this society a private godliness is promoted which neglects communal responsibility (Townsend 2007). Others in evangelical circles see human rights as liberalism gone global (Hogan 2006).

The ambivalence of evangelical Christian support for human rights is thoroughly examined by Nichols (2009). He argues that in spite of evangelicals’ deep historical connection with human rights, there is still little acknowledgement of them bothin and outside evangelicalism. Nichols appears ultimately doubtful whether modern evangelical theology is amenable to a robust and deep understanding of and commitment to human rights. A central obstacle to this engagement is the primacy of evangelism as proclamation.

Holistic Development: A Christian Human Rights- Based Approach (HRBA)

Despite the dynamic tensions between “sacred–secular” approaches to development, the HRBA, with its common ideals of solidarity with the poor, presents an opportunity for engagement between evangelicals and development professionals. This section explores what this would look like in practice for “evangelical development action.”

From an evangelical perspective, Hiebert & Hiebert-Crape define “development” as:

the movement of people, societies, and cultures towards what God intended for them to be as his creation. At the individual level, this includes food, shelter, health, reconciliation with God, freedom from the power of sin, and growth into full humanity, into the image of God. At the social level, it includes justice, equality, genuine community, and harmony with nature. At the cultural level, it includes the knowledge of truth and a meaningful life, experience of joy, and a commitment to righteousness, love, and peace. And at the spiritual level, it involves right relationships with God and one another within the framework of God’s Kingdom (Hiebert & Hiebert-Crape 1995, 283).

Adopting and Adapting the Advocacy and Human Right-Based Approaches (HRBAs)

How do we recover the same vigour of the slave abolitionists like Wilberforce whilst staying true to our evangelical commitment to bringing the ‘good news’ into the world? The Bible is explicit that God ison the side of the poor and the marginalized. … Our actions in fighting poverty start in our partnership with the poor and the marginalised. We do this, not as saviours of the poor and oppressed but as brothers and sisters sharing their pain and suffering. We serve them as partners not experts. Partnership with the poor requires that we listen in deep dialogue, which may require us to modify our approaches in serving the poor and oppressed. There are many ways of seeing the poor: as statistics, as objects of charity or as victims of injustice. True humility is seeing the poor as those who represent God. We have an opportunity to know God through the poor and learn from the poor (Chester 2002).

Revisiting the Primacy of Evangelism

The evangelism versus social concern approach of churches cannot be relevant in the changing context of the world, where increasingly ministering to the poor and marginalised requires a confrontation of abuses of human rights and human dignity. The Rwandan genocide, in which close to a million people were brutally massacred, graphically highlights the complicity of the church through its ambivalence and silence, this in a country where more than 90% of the population are Christians (Ritner, Roth & Whitworth 2004).

The Role of the Local Church

Christian social action cannot be “outsourced” to development gencies but needs to be an integral expression of the church’s mission into the world. The dual focus of evangelism and social action must be part of the church’s understanding and engagement with the world. Verhaeghe (2009) reminds us that despite all of its flaws and its perceived and practised irrelevance, the church is at the same time one of the most resilient as well as one of the most ubiquitous social institutions there is. This is especially so in the African context, where the church is the most universal and the most credible of civil society organisations and an essential institution in the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals.

Collaborating for the Common Good

The notion of common good calls on the Christian community to look beyond individual interests to those of the collective in response to the greatest command of Christ to love our neighbour as ourselves

Our desire for social justice and righteousness will require us to partner with people and organisations of other faiths. In the international development sector, many secular and faith-based organisations work together recognising that the challenge is too big for any one organisation to tackle. Multi-sectoral and sacred–secular collaboration is required not only at an operational level but also at the level of ideas (Ter Haar 2013). This requires a genuine commitment to understanding the thinking, reasoning, and motivation of faith-inspired actors.

Taking Up the South African Challenge

Many evangelicals remain resistant to national economic reforms or are oblivious to the tragedy of poverty that still plagues this country, attributing it to corrupt politicians and poor governance only. There is a growing trend towards civic disengagement related to the rights of the poor in the rapidly growing middle class evangelical churches in South African cities – driven by a ‘prosperity theology’

Religion is central to changing values and beliefs. The church must take an active advocacy role, collaborating with civil society actors in dealing with current social challenges and especially the injustice of poverty.

Changed hearts and minds will not come through legislative reform alone. Evangelicals can play a constructive role in building up leaders whilst at the same time challenging social immorality, especially as it has an effect on justice towards the poor.


It is time for evangelicals to reclaim their heritage of commitment to local and international development – equally valuing both evangelism and social action as integral to Christian mission. There is also an urgent need to re-engage with human rights as a viable instrument of advocacy on behalf of the poor and not just limit action to mercy ministries addressing symptoms but to also deal with issues of social justice—getting to the root causes of global poverty. [See one institution’s efforts to describe the causes of poverty.]

Given the disenchantment with secularism as the driving model of international development, there is a pressing need for evangelicals to collaborate with INGOs, NGOs, and other faith-based organisations in their common commitment towards the poor, recognising the centrality of religion to development.

In addition to continued commitment to ministries of compassion, there is also a need to challenge the structures of power and authority that perpetuate poverty whilst calling on all South Africans to strive towards building a society inspired by the biblical values of justice and righteousness.


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Dr. Stanley Arumugam is an independent leadership consultant and executive coach. At the time of writing this article, Stanley was a Senior Leadership Advisor at ActionAid International, Johannesburg, South Africa. He continues to consult with NGO’s, faith based organizations, and corporates in the areas of leadership effectiveness and social justice. He has a PhD in Community Psychology and MSc Coaching.

Dr. Stanley Arumugam is an independent leadership consultant and executive coach. At the time of writing this article, Stanley was a Senior Leadership Advisor at ActionAid International, Johannesburg, South Africa. He continues to consult with NGO’s, faith based organizations, and corporates in the areas of leadership effectiveness and social justice. He has a PhD in Community Psychology and MSc Coaching.