In the previous essay in this series, we learned about the implications of Abdu’l-Baha’s formula for making social and economic development work.

He summarized that formula in a speech he gave in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in May of 1912:

… under present systems and conditions of government the poor are subject to the greatest need and distress while others more fortunate live in luxury and plenty far beyond their actual necessities. This inequality of portion and privilege is one of the deep and vital problems of human society. That there is need of an equalization and apportionment by which all may possess the comforts and privileges of life is evident. …

No matter how far the material world advances, it cannot establish the happiness of mankind. Only when material and spiritual civilization are linked and coordinated will happiness be assured. …

Therefore, the material and the divine, or merciful, civilizations must progress together until the highest aspirations and desires of humanity shall become realized. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 107-109.

From this central Baha’i premise, we can examine each social and economic development project we devise for the extent to which it incorporates spiritual values. If a project focuses solely on material benefits, and does nothing to promote the spiritual welfare of those involved, then it is likely to result in as much harm as good.

We all know that material development seeks to increase wealth, improve health, grow more food, provide access to clean water, improve communications and infrastructure, build schools and hospitals, etc. It is easy to measure these and assess whether the desired result has been achieved. If the goal was to establish ten new schools, we can simply count the number of schools before and see if ten new schools have been established.

But those involved in development projects may well ask: How can we assess the spiritual content of a proposed project? How can we know if the spiritual goals of a project have been achieved? Spiritual development is by definition intangible—which makes it more difficult to measure and assess.

Criteria for Assessing the Spiritual Content of Projects and Plans

One can frame the criteria for the spiritual component of a social plan of action by assessing to what extent it increases individual human potential. The Baha’i teachings suggest that the sort of questions we should ask of development projects include the following:

Development of the Individual:

Baha’is believe that the maximization of human happiness can only come about through the development of not only the physical, but also the mental and spiritual potential of each human being. Social and economic development activities need to go beyond the physical needs of the individual: food, housing, and health. They also require attention to the mental development of the individual: education and the development of human resources—and to the spiritual development of the individual: acquiring and developing moral and spiritual attributes such as justice, trustworthiness, truthfulness, love, etc.

Development of Society:

Each social and economic development project needs to first ask:

  • Does the project bring about justice and equity in society?
  • Does the project advance the cause of the equality of women and men?
  • Does the project promote trustworthiness and high moral standards, especially among those who wield authority?
  • Does the project enhance unity among the diverse groups in society at the same time as maintaining diversity?
  • Does the project encourage the individuals in a society to investigate the truth for themselves and to increase their independence and self-sufficiency?

In the next essay in this series, we’ll examine these new spiritual criteria for social and economic development one by one.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

7 Comments

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  • Sally Akhtar Qazi
    Apr 13, 2018
    Thank you for these insights. Bless you
  • Precieux Torchon
    Apr 08, 2018
    Hello,how are you doing today? very perfectly ,I like that
  • Jan Sabet-Sharghi
    Apr 02, 2018
    Could we find an illustration that reflects the diversity of the human race? This would be more in keeping with 'Abdul-Baha s teachings...
  • Linda Pearce
    Mar 31, 2018
    Thank you so much for these articles. I find them very helpful. You focus on what this approach might look like in practice. People in less well-off non-western communities tend to have a better grasp of how to put these principles into practice. Here in North America I think we could do well to look to the less well-off black, indigenous and immigrant communities to teach us how to work together. Your essays, particularly the second one could be used as a starting point to understanding what the Universal House of Justice is asking of us and what that ...might look like. Then with the help of those already embarked like indigenous peoples we could take the first steps.
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  • Andrew Scott
    Mar 30, 2018
    Thank you. We see quite a lot of attention being paid to the first two of these bullet points (end of article), but among the wider world, how many focus on the last three?
  • Coriolano Guarani-Kaiowá Correa
    Mar 30, 2018
    Excellent article. In a world that is polarized between Left and Right, some Baha'is tend to bring their former political viewpoints into the Faith, causing clashes between the friends.
  • Jan 01, 1970
    Thank you for these insights. Bless you