A little more than two decades ago, the worldwide Baha’i community embarked on a new global program of social and economic development.
Designed to revolutionize the way we think about social development, this grassroots plan focuses on both the spiritual and the material and how they affect each human being and all human beings:
Baha’u’llah’s Revelation is vast. It calls for profound change not only at the level of the individual but also in the structure of society. “Is not the object of every Revelation”, He Himself proclaims, “to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions?” (Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 240.) The work advancing in every corner of the globe today represents the latest stage of the ongoing Baha’i endeavour to create the nucleus of the glorious civilization enshrined in His teachings, the building of which is an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed. – The Universal House of Justice, April 2010, to the Baha’is of the World.
But what does this mean in terms of actual social development? I am not sure that I have fully understood the new Baha’i-inspired way of thinking about development, but it goes something along these lines:
- Development is not something that just the poorer countries of the world need; by Baha’u’llah’s standards, every society in the world is underdeveloped, whether materially or spiritually.
- Development should not be something that one group of people in one part of the world do to or for others in another part of the world. Instead, it is something we do for ourselves and participate and cooperate with our friends and neighbors in bringing about.
- Development only truly occurs when a people start to take ownership of their problems and consult together about how to tackle those problems.
- Development works best when the spiritual, social and material needs of a society are addressed in a balanced manner—addressing only the material often leads to negative results.
- Development works best if there is a simultaneous change in both the character of the individual and the structure and values of society—the process has to take both forward together.
- Development should benefit all strata and sections of society, especially those in the lower and neglected strata and sections.
- Development occurs optimally when the members of that society have the skills and capacity to consult; this in turn depends on empowering those sections of society that have been oppressed while educating those sections who tend to dominate to see that every individual has worth and can contribute to the consultation process.
- Development works best when all groups and strata of society participate in the decision making about and executing of programs of action.
- Development proceeds best when the individuals in a society have training in consultation, an orientation of service to their community and have carried out acts of service, which enable them to start to see the problems in their society with clarity; in this manner they start to generate their own knowledge about and insights into the problems of their society.
- Development proceeds best when groups of individuals who have the relevant training in consultation skills and who have experienced the problems of their society through carrying out acts of service then come together and consult about the problems of their society, are able to read the reality of their circumstances and to construct realistic and achievable projects to carry out; in this way the capacities of the participants are constantly being developed as the process unfolds.
- Development works best when a cyclical pattern of reflection, consultation, planning, and action is put on a systematic basis, so that those involved learn from each cycle and are thus constantly improving their plans of action.
- Development will proceed best if these groups consulting and acting at the local level have access to the knowledge and learning generated by other groups throughout the world, who may have already tackled the problems they are tackling and may have useful insights; a systematic method of distilling and organizing this knowledge is needed.
- Development is only possible when a society is united.
Those of you familiar with the processes of the Baha’i Global Five Year Plans will immediately recognize that this list describes exactly what each Baha’i community in the world has been doing in the last two decades.
Every Baha’i community has thus effectively been carrying out a vast global development project in their individual neighborhoods and localities.
At present, this unique global development plan focuses on building the capacity of individuals to participate in these activities through a program of training courses—as well as starting the next generation off in the process through children’s classes and junior youth empowerment groups. A prominent spiritual element suffuses these activities at all levels, in devotional meetings which all are encouraged to establish in their homes and invite their neighbors to attend.
In this new paradigm, local people generate knowledge about the problems of their own societies, consider the human and material resources at their disposal, come up with plans to address these problems, and then carry out these plans. They have ownership of the whole process, from identifying problems to deciding on a course of action to addressing those problems.
The Universal House of Justice has indicated that as the number of people around the world participating in these development processes increases, and the capacity of those taking part develops, the reflection meetings at which consultation and decision-making occur will increasingly widen the scope of the projects they take on. Then, instead of focusing on getting more people involved in these core activities—as most Baha’i communities are doing now—they will increasingly address the problems and issues of their wider societies.
This is new. In the entire scope of human history, no organization or faith has ever implemented anything like it—a simultaneous worldwide social development program designed to carry forward an ever-advancing global civilization.
Those of you reading this who are not Baha’is, but who see this unique approach as interesting, do not have to be Baha’is to get involved—it is open to all. In fact, in some areas the majority of those participating are not Baha’is.
Baha’is do not presume to have all the answers to the world’s economic and social problems—but do believe that by building the capacity to consult and serve at the neighborhood level, and instituting regular cycles of action, reflection, consultation, and study, we can all help provide the tools with which local communities solve their own economic and social problems. The Baha’i community is only at the very early stages of this process, and it will be a long and steady implementation, but one that builds momentum as it goes along because it is built on the firm foundations of spiritually-transformed individuals, coherence in its conceptual framework, and an evolving, self-correcting method—what Baha’is call a culture of learning.