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Are ‘Rights based’ programs the new 'Missionaries of Modernity'?

Promoting rights and active citizenship is a new way of ‘civilising’ Myanmar? ___________

Who could be against rights and participation? Surely only those people with ill intentions. Well if we transport back a couple of hundred years to the days of early missionaries in Burma, they may well have asked who could possibly be against Christianity and a ‘civilised’ society? Surely only those with evil or backward intentions, they might have said.

I read a challenging article today by Steven Robins (et al.) called ‘Rethinking ‘citizenship’ in the Post colony’. The article calls for understandings of citizenship and democracy which arise not from a presumption about the how things ‘ought’ to be but rather from ‘everyday experiences’ in particular social, cultural and historical contexts.

Don’t start with a pre-programmed idea of something like ‘rights’ and then apply it everywhere, rather look at what citizenship may mean in particular contexts.

They even go so far as to suggest that “many of those who promote citizen participation and rights can be understood as ‘missionaries of modernity’ who seek to civilise’ the ‘unruly masses’”. And they stress that emphasising the claiming of rights in a particular way can actually undermine real political initiative.

They ask ‘when does the role of ‘civil society’ in normalising conduct and teaching people the language of the bureaucratic state end up dampening, rather than deepening, the potential for political agency, for protest, disruption and efficacy in getting the things people demand’?

It certainly is a challenging idea.

That perhaps the Rights Based Approach – that everyone seems to take these days – is actually just a new form of ‘missionary’ work, attempting to usher people into a ‘modern’ and ‘civilised’ world.

And perhaps more effective action could be supported if we recognised the limits of that framework and started ‘rethinking citizenship from the perspectives of citizens themselves’?

What do you think?

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