The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
Effective international development involves a process of collaboration, where foreign technical advisors and local counterparts learn together and find ways to apply insider and outsider knowledge to help a society progress. When we work well together significant and sometimes quite unanticipated beneficial effects can happen.
One example of an unintended positive result of the application of knowledge was evident in the efforts of a locally-hired colleague who worked as a team member on a brief evaluation of a donor-funded governance project. After the mission ended, he set up an NGO and initiated a process with government officials to plan and carry out a series of religious leaders’ roundtables. In those groups, thousands of mullahs and madrassa principals engaged in well-received discussions related to reducing religious extremism and fostering human rights, democratization, and promotion of literacy for both men and women.
My colleague focused on religious leaders because our discussions when we worked together made it clear to him that they could influence the population in a way that was quite different than the country’s government or its media. He also said that the ripple effect on the society was immense. Each mullah and madrassa principal attending a large multi-day roundtable session would have trusting relationships with about five hundred to a thousand individuals in their mosques or schools, indicating that at least a half million people and their households could be impacted from a single four-day 1000-participant roundtable session. He worked with committed government officials to organize many such sessions across the country, which I dearly hope are being systematically monitored and evaluated.
Few if any typical foreign-designed international development projects would be able to have that type of household-level impact.
My colleague said that working with me on the brief evaluation assignment inspired him to initiate the project. I’m not sure what I said or did that helped produce this result, but he said the idea emerged from our on-going collaborative learning and exchanges of insider and outsider views of how the country worked and how to help a society progress.
There are many other examples of the effects of applying knowledge to support the betterment of the world. I selected this case for various reasons, among them because it demonstrated a large-scale impact from a relatively small and unintentional initial input, an example that can be partially understood using Chaos Theory and perhaps – actually, more likely – by appreciating the mysterious power of the Baha’i Cause at work.
The issue of good leadership – what Abdu’l-Baha called “the pure intentions and justice of the ruler”– applies directly here. Many fragile states suffer from what is known as “elite capture” of the institutions of state by powerful business and political elites who manipulate these instruments, including electoral processes, to serve themselves and their cronies more so than the public good. This quality-of-leadership issue might apply to countries everywhere. Some analysts go so far as to call it a “predatory elite,” fueled by self-serving values rather than a sense of social responsibility for the entire population.
When leadership values change for the better, countries show signs of progress. The Baha’i Writings address this issue directly:
If administrators of the law would take into consideration the spiritual consequences of their decisions, and follow the guidance of religion, ‘They would be Divine agents in the world of action, the representatives of God for those who are on earth, and they would defend, for the love of God, the interests of His servants as they would defend their own’. If a governor realizes his responsibility, and fears to defy the Divine Law, his judgments will be just. Above all, if he believes that the consequences of his actions will follow him beyond his earthly life, and that ‘as he sows so must he reap’, such a man will surely avoid injustice and tyranny.
Should an official, on the contrary, think that all responsibility for his actions must end with his earthly life, knowing and believing nothing of Divine favours and a spiritual kingdom of joy, he will lack the incentive to just dealing, and the inspiration to destroy oppression and unrighteousness. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 157.
So far, the international community has tried and failed to remedy this problem. Even the powerful extractive multinational corporations that generate the bulk of many fragile states’ incomes (and which often contribute to their fragility) seem relatively powerless when they want to do something good in this area. For example, when British Petroleum sought to pursue its relatively enlightened corporate social responsibility agenda in Angola and unilaterally released financial information on payments to the government from their petroleum operations, an angry leadership threatened to expel BP from the country – there were other less socially responsible corporations eager to take over if they left.
In many cases, only the relative level of altruism and social conscience demonstrated by a country’s ruling elite can determine its level of justice and fairness. Baha’is understand that dynamic, and believe that the renewed moral principles their Faith represents can benefit both the rulers and their populations. In fact, Baha’u’llah promises the world’s rulers that they will be held to account by God for their honesty, their equity and their efforts to establish peace and justice.
Read the next article in the series: Values, Altruism and Statecraft
Read the previous article in the series: Does the “Aid Industry” Work?