Centers of Learning for Social and Economic Development
by Paul Lample1995-03-19
". . . in the course of the Golden Age, destined to consummate the Dispensation itself, the banner of the Most Great Peace, promised by its Author, will have been unfurled, the World Bahá'í Commonwealth will have emerged in the plenitude of its power and splendor, and the birth and efflorescence of a world civilization, the child of that Peace, will have conferred its inestimable blessings upon all mankind."1
The fruit of the tree of Bahá'u'lláh's stupendous revelation, Shoghi Effendi tells us, will be the birth and efflorescence of a new civilization that not only transcends anything humanity has achieved in the past, but which far exceeds our limited ability to imagine it even today. Bahá'ís can appreciate this idea because the concept of progressive revelation central to our beliefs informs us that the manifestation of each great world religion infuses the earth with a spirit that transforms individuals and society and leads to the progress of an ever-advancing civilization. One of the unique features of this new age of maturity in humanity's development, however, is that this new civilization is not merely a by-product of a relative adherence to the principles and teachings of the Founder of the faith. Rather, it will be a conscious2 process in which individuals endowed with a new understanding and new vision will work consciously to implement the principles and teachings into new patterns of action that will produce its eventual fruit. Thus, Bahá'u'lláh exhorts: "It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action."3
To say this is not meant to imply that the entire process is conscious. The Writings clearly described the release of "creative"4 forces which act "mysteriously"5 and have "instilled into humanity the capacity to attain . . . [the] final stage in its organic growth and collective evolution."6 The great "plan of God" is "tumultuous in its progress, working through mankind as a whole, tearing down barriers to world unity and forging humankind into a unified body in the fires of suffering and experience."7 The movement toward a global civilization is, therefore, an organic process whose ultimate outcome is the inescapable result of God's action in the world. Through our efforts to gain a ever-increasing understanding of this organic process, however, Bahá'ís are in a position to deliberately concentrate their energies on accelerating and enhancing its unfoldment in the same way the good farmer achieves the most abundant harvest.
The unfoldment of civilization, or -- to use the words of the document The Prosperity of Humankind -- "the long, slow civilizing of human character," is the expression of the historical process itself. Consider one of many experiences in the raising of human civilization. In the west, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment represented significant phases in the stages by which western civilization emerged from the confining framework of medieval Christianity to give birth to extraordinary achievements in social, political, scientific, and economic affair that today distinguish it. Central to the progress of western thought was the evolution of such concepts as the freedom of the individual, the rights of private property and principles of free trade, democracy, and the use of natural science in understanding reality. Over the centuries these ideas found expression in attitudes, institutions, lifestyles, sciences, culture, and actions which has made the world a dramatically different environment from the Europe of the year 1300. Kant went so far as to define history in terms of the movement toward the expression of some of these ideas: "The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom."8
Because the movement was essentially secular -- despite the undoubted influence of both Christianity and Islam -- the seeds that produced the harvest of western civilization grew together with weeds that mar its landscape. Thus freedom appears inextricably bound with license; economic well-being with materialism; the benefits of science and technology with the appalling levels of human suffering.
The course followed by western civilization provides a useful illustration for thinking about the unfoldment of Bahá'u'lláh's promised civilization. First, the example shows the dramatic extent of change inherent in the idea of raising a new civilization. Second, because the wesern experience gave rise to many of the fundamental concepts of development, it is important to contrast these basic beliefs with the assumptions and principles of the Bahá'í view of development.
As communism collapsed in ruins, public attention in the west was seized by Francis Fukuyama's challenging book, The End of History and The Last Man. Noting Hegel's definition of history as the movement toward a form of social order that satisfied humanity's deepest and most fundamental longings, Fukuyama proclaimed that at the end of the 20th century, nation after nation was adopting the liberal democratic framework that characterizes market society and which, he asserts, is no longer challenged by any competing system. "History" had effectively come to an end:
In contrast, The Prosperity of Humankind proclaims that "the history of humanity as one people"10 is only now beginning. The Universal House of Justice had previously explained that this vision of divine civilization, is
The seeds of a new civilization are the concepts and principles presented in the Word of God for this day. These seeds will give rise over centuries to new attitudes, new actions, new institutions, and a new culture. The changes that will occur in the coming centuries will dwarf those of western civilization in ways that we can only dimly imagine. The challenge to the Bahá'í community is to understand the profound implications of Bahá'u'lláh's promise of a new civilization; to present, to the degree possible, this new vision as an alternative to the existing order; and to work consciously and with perseverance to translate this vision into reality.
In the area of social and economic development the Bahá'í community has already completed the first phase of its collective enterprise, initiated by the Universal House of Justice in its message of 20 October 1983. Three recent documents have been developed which take stock of this experience and look to the actions required in the years ahead. These documents are The Prosperity of Humankind, prepared by the Bahá'í International Community; "Bahá'í Social and Economic Development: Prospects for the Future," a statement prepared in August 1993 at the Bahá'í World Centre and approved by the Universal House of Justice; and "The Evolution of Institutional Capacity for Social and Economic Development," which was prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá'í World Centre. The purpose of the first document is to foster understanding about global prosperity within the Bahá'í community; the purpose of the second is for use in orienting and guiding the work of Bahá'í social and economic development; the purpose of the third is to support the emergence of strong institutions for guiding development projects. The content of these documents, summarized in the discussion below, provides an overview of vision, strategies and lines of action that can guide the course of Bahá'í development activities in the coming decades, decades that are crucial in the transition toward the ultimate realization of Bahá'u'lláh's promised civilization.
A Vision of Development
The essential contribution of The Prosperity of Humankind lies in providing a Bahá'í vision of social and economic development. It draws from the Writings the fundamental principles and translates them into a contemporary statement that speaks to ten years of Bahá'í and fifty years of non-Bahá'í experience. The Bahá'í community defines for itself "prosperity" -- thereby framing its own concept of development. The introduction and seven parts of the document question the materialistic assumptions of most current thinking about development; acknowledge the awareness of the oneness of humanity as the bedrock of a strategy for development; identify justice as the key to translate consciousness of humanity's oneness into the will required for change in structures and action; call for a redefinition of human relationships suited to the age of human maturity; confirm that the expansion of human capacity through the acquisition of knowledge -- from both true science and true religion -- is the vehicle for development; describe economics as a tool for achieving human prosperity, rather than the central focus of development; discuss issues of power to achieve the transformation of society and the authority to exercise that power; and challenge all humanity to participate in the processes of social change necessary for the age of maturity.
In place of the assumptions of a materialistic view of man, whose purpose is to consume, whose motives deemed most efficient in a materialistic society are to indulge his own desires and ego, the Bahá'í Teachings present an individual who is both spiritual and material, who purpose is the full expression of the potentialities of spiritual qualities in the material realm, whose motives are service to humanity. Instead of economics or political organization being the driving force of social life, it is the acquisition of knowledge and its manifestation in an increase in individual capabilities and an ever-advancing civilization that represents real human progress. And, rather than placing the responsibility for humanity in the hands of one group -- whether of social class, religion, race, nationality, gender, education, or income the challenge addresses "all of the inhabitants of the planet"14 as the protagonists of the development process.
The world has defined social and economic development in terms of moving "undeveloped" societies into the category of "developed", of providing or supplementing material deficiencies, or even in terms of offering equal opportunities and basic social justice. In the Bahá'í perspective, social and economic development might be defined as "learning to apply the Teachings to achieve progress"15 with the purpose of "laying foundations for a new social order that can cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness."16
Such a vision of social and economic development is captured in the following statement of 'Abdu'l-Bahá from The Secret of Divine Civilization:
The Conceptual Basis for Development Strategies
Having briefly considered in its broadest outline a vision underlying the establishment of true prosperity for humankind, it is now possible to turn to the specific issues related to how the Bahá'í community can establish a pattern of action that will translate these principles into reality.
Six concepts form the basis of strategies for translating the vision of human prosperity into a pattern of action for the Bahá'í world. As summarized from the document, "Bahá'í Social and Economic Development: Prospects for the Future," these include:
1. Degrees of Complexity. In general, social and economic development activities begin with a relatively simple set of actions at the grass roots. As experience is gained from action, these activities can grow in complexity without undue pressure from opinions based largely on theoretical considerations.
2. Capacity Building. While concrete action in a project is directed towards a visible improvement of some aspect of life, Bahá'í social and economic development is more than simply the delivery of services. Capacity must be fostered within people themselves. Success in a project, therefore, must also be measured in its impact on the capacity of the community to make and implement decisions about spiritual, moral, and material well-being on increasingly more complex and more effective levels.
3. Learning. Learning to put Bahá'u'lláh's Teachings into action is, as already stated, the centerpiece of Bahá'í social and economic development. This learning takes place at all levels and involves all believers, whatever their capacities and experiences. It entails not only study, but a combination of simultaneous efforts to study the Writings, keep up with experiences in the literature on development, consult within and across various levels, action, and reflection on action that leads to an ever-evolving pattern of more effective action.
4. Development of Human Resources. Intimately related to learning and building of capacity is the development of human resources. Training methods, which foster participation and a humble attitude toward learning, can be applied in project areas for participants at the grassroots and in a worldwide learning process that involves professionals and university students. Indeed, project sites may be seen as locations where training is provided for an increasing number of individuals from poor and wealthy nations and from all sectors of society.
5. Influencing Society. Learning about applying the Teachings to problems of humanity within a development project is part of a larger process of transformation in all fields and among all people. The beneficiary of a development project may or may not become involved in the project over an extended time, but participation will deeply influence the nature and effectiveness of future activities. Opportunities need to be developed for collaborating with people of capacity and leaders of thought, inviting them to participate in applying the Teachings to various human problems.
6. Integration. The world's experience has shown that fragmented activities in different fields do not bring about development. The integration of efforts across various fields, such as health, education, agriculture, and industry, is essential for real progress in a region. The process of integration does not contradict the principle of beginning with simple grassroots action, however, since complexity arises in an organic fashion. In Bahá'í development, the concept of integration also pertains to the integration of material progress and spiritual development. Thus social and economic development activities are integrated with activities for the expansion and consolidation of the Faith. Integration implies coordination and mutual reinforcement between various factors, rather than reductionist approaches.
Consideration of these six, mutually-reinforcing concepts suggests the gradual emergence of certain patterns of action in the Bahá'í world. Centers of learning about social and economic development will need to arise at local, regional, national, and international levels.
Development Projects as Centers of Learning
Every Bahá'í development project -- even the smallest effort at the grassroots -- should be considered, and should strive to become, a center for learning about the process of achieving human prosperity. This involves not only an emphasis on the development of individual capacities, but more important to the movement toward a new civilization, requires the building of institutional capacity.
Attention is, necessarily, given to strengthening Bahá'í institutions locally and nationally. But this by itself is not sufficient. Institutions need to emerge and evolve which act and learn from their development efforts.
Consider, for example, a village tutorial school. A teacher delivers an educational service to a few students. This is a worthy service, but in the perspective of a movement to a new civilization it is obviously not sufficient. It must continue to develop, but how? If, with the infusion of money, a facility is built and more teachers hired, it still remains simply the delivery of a service. However, that same tutorial school, when viewed as a center of learning about development offers expanded possibilities. Students can be trained in capabilities that can promote well-being in their region, such as in the areas of literacy, primary health care, agriculture or vocational skills. They would not be compelled to stay in their village after their education, nor would their position be that of a paid "community developer". Rather, as a result of their education they will view their village and their life differently and will be able to contribute effectively toward progress of the region. In addition, dealing with the concerns of the school itself can be a means whereby institutional capacity is developed in the local assembly, as it consults and makes decisions on various related matters.
Beyond the village area, a center of learning is needed in the form of an institute for the training of school teachers for an entire region or nation, which thinks about the development of appropriate curricular materials, and contributes to a world-wide search within the Faith for a new model of education. Such an institute may, itself, begin quite modestly, with the random presentation of deepening courses in an area of mass teaching by a committee of the National Assembly. Eventually the courses can become more systematic, and a process for the development of human resources can emerge. A semi-autonomous board, responsible to the National Assembly would guide this evolving process. As the institute grows and expands its attention to other areas such as health or agricultural training, it can serve as a focal point for integration. It can also provide integration of the spiritual and material with training of human resources for expansion and consolidation and social and economic development. The development of such centers of learning, teaching institutes, are actively being promoted by the International Teaching Centre.
This pattern of the evolution of institutional capacity under the framework of the Bahá'í administrative order is not the only model within the Bahá'í world. A second pattern can be seen in the creation of Bahá'í-inspired agencies by groups of believers who share a common vision. Such agencies take the form of non governmental, not-for-profit organizations for social and economic development. A letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice has explained:
Activities of this kind, though they do not operate under the direct auspices of Bahá'í institutions, may still be considered "Bahá'í":
In these two ways, then, centers for learning about social and economic development are emerging in localities throughout the Bahá'í world. Not every development activity moves beyond a grassroots level. However, the evolution of institutional capacity is essential to ensure that learning is organized and becomes a systematic activity.
The Office of Social and Economic Development
The Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá'í World Centre assists the Universal House of Justice in promoting and coordinating Bahá'í social and economic development activities. As centers of learning are established in various localities, channels are required for the flow of knowledge to all levels in all parts of the world. The primary purpose of OSED, therefore, is "to facilitate learning about development by fostering and supporting action, reflection on action, study, consultation, the gathering and systematization of experience, conceptualization, and training -- all carried out in the light of the Teachings of the Faith."20
As projects begin at the grassroots with the support of local, regional, and perhaps national agencies, the involvement of OSED is to provide, on request, the fruits of the learning process from the global Bahá'í community. This learning is generated through the analysis of reports and documentation of systematic advances in Bahá'í experiences with development activities.
When projects grow in size and complexity, OSED's relationship with the project grows as well. Extending of financial support and offering of guidance is part of this involvement. Yet OSED also makes an effort to aid the evolution of projects at the grassroots through collaboration by individual believers with expertise in the area of development and by fostering the evolution of institutional capacity in Bahá'í and Bahá'í-inspired agencies described above.
Another area of involvement by OSED in learning about development is through the initiation of global campaigns. While most projects begin at the grassroots, this does not mean there is no role for action at higher levels. Once experience and reflection has produced a certain degree of knowledge of a particular development initiative, this knowledge can be translated into materials and a program of action that can be progressively implemented in nation after nation.
For example, during the past year, one such campaign was initiated for literacy in pilot projects in Guyana, Cambodia, and the Central African Republic. Since the message of the Universal House of Justice about literacy dated 10 July 1989, many different activities and methods were used in Bahá'í communities in different parts of the world. Three individuals from successful projects were invited to Haifa for consultations to learn from the existing efforts and devise a plan for accelerated and more systematic literacy efforts. The result was the three pilot projects, adopted by the National Assemblies and placed under the authority of special task forces in each country which will create materials, establish training programs, and implement literacy classes. It is hoped that the experience in these countries will be replicated each year until a significant endeavor to remove illiteracy from the Bahá'í world and to dramatically impact the peoples of these nations is achieved.
In recent years, the Universal House of Justice has repeatedly mentioned the need for, and signs of, a growing maturity in the Bahá'í community. This maturity is evident as we look across the years since the Faith began, and from the increasing complexity of the goals of its organized teaching campaigns since 1937. The initiation of collective activities for social and economic development in 1983 was itself, a sign of this growing maturity.
When we consider the meaning of maturity in the development of an individual, we understand it to mean that a person have emerged from childhood, a stage of dependency, to assume conscious responsibility for their own actions and further development. The growing maturity in the Bahá'í world, and, indeed, the concept of the age of maturity for the human race, can be thought of in this same context. To achieve the true prosperity of humankind in a global civilization requires conscious and determined action to translate the Teachings of Bahá'u'lláh in practice -- in our attitudes, institutions, and all fields of human endeavor. This is the stage we are now entering in our development activities, a stage of conscious self-determination.
What is needed is continued emergence and development of centers of learning about social and economic development. Such projects and organizations, operating at the local, regional, and national levels will be nurtured by international channels for the diffusion of learning and supported by the effort of individual believers, including professional, students, and those participating in grassroots endeavors.
As the document, The Prosperity of Humankind, concludes:
2) The Universal House of Justice, Wellspring of Guidance, page 134
3) Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, page 166
4) Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, page 81
5) Shoghi Effendi, Messages to America, page 17
6) Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pages 411-12
7) The Universal House of Justice, Wellspring of Guidance, page 133
8) Immanuel Kant, in Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, page 60
9) Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, page 46
10) The Prosperity of Humankind, page 1
11) The Universal House of Justice, Wellspring of Guidance, pages 113-14
12) The Prosperity of Humankind, page 5
13) The Prosperity of Humankind, page 2
14) The Prosperity of Humankind, page 18
15) "Bahá'í Social and Economic Development: Prospects for the Future", page 3
16) The Prosperity of Humankind, page 13
17) 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pages 2-3
18) written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, in "The Evolution of Institutional Capacity for Social and Economic Development", pages 2-3
19) written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, in "The Evolution of Institutional Capacity for Social and Economic Development", page 3
20) "Bahá'í Social and Economic Development: Prospects for the Future," page 5
21) The Prosperity of Humankind, pages 18-19