Bahá’ís and Rural Development Today
Through the years, the Bahá’í world community has made significant efforts to put the Bahá’í teachings on rural development into practice. As previously mentioned, these efforts are still in the early stages; however, the holistic development process is now intensifying in thousands of communities around the world, in several ways.
Establishing Communities and Institutions
From the early days of the Bahá’í dispensation, Bahá’ís began to travel and relocate to communities around the world in order to fulfill the wish of Bahá’u’lláh to bring the faith to every spot in the world. During the First World War, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote a series of letters, known as the Tablets of the Divine Plan, urging Bahá’ís to fan out throughout the world to deliver the Bahá’í message. Later, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice devised a series of plans that saw Bahá’ís locate in every country and territory in the world, even in the most remote regions. Today, Bahá’ís live in more than 100,000 communities throughout the world and have formed 15,000 Local Spiritual Assemblies.
The thousands of Bahá’í communities in rural areas are slowly but surely developing institutions and capacities to create a new world order based on Bahá’u’lláh’s vision. Throughout the Bahá’í world, establishing an effective training institute is a priority and a key to sustained growth. By 2016, 1,500 intensive programs of growth associated with the training institute were established in clusters of communities throughout the world. The goal for 2021 is to have intensive programs of growth in 5,000 of these small geographic areas. In the most advanced, transformation at the level of culture is already occurring. What does this process look like?
The training institute is an inclusive, grassroots educational movement that is free or low-cost for participants. It is particularly active in places like Bihar Sharif, India—the site of one of the new local Houses of Worship. In Bihar, more than 50% of the population live on an income below US$1.25 a day. The illiteracy rate, at 60%, is one of the highest in India. Village schools typically have one teacher per hundred students spread across eight grades. The strong influence of caste and religious prejudice often leads to social tension and violence, and women are particularly disadvantaged and at risk. Such conditions result in receptivity to constructive change and openness to opportunities for learning.
With some 6,000 people in Bihar Sharif participating in the four core components of the institute’s program, significant transformation is under way in several areas. The training institute has helped not only to reinforce positive elements of traditional culture but also to renew certain common cultural practices. In light of the Bahá’í teachings on the oneness of humankind, caste prejudice is being set aside. Perhaps the most significant changes have occurred in relation to the status of women. In this community, women’s activities were mainly restricted to the home, but with the institute program, women began to leave the home to study and were soon tutoring programs themselves and facilitating children and youth groups. Girls were encouraged to participate along with the boys. The practice of arranged marriages of girls at a very young age has declined, and women are now able to choose their partners with their parents’ blessing. Costly marriage ceremonies and substantial dowries often resulted in families having to sell land to raise money, undermining their ability to make a living. In keeping with Bahá’í principles, simpler ceremonies and reduced dowries have relieved pressures on families with girls. Efforts are also being made to include youth in decision making, which was traditionally done only by elders.
Efforts to improve the status of women are very important for rural development and poverty reduction. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, supporting women to achieve an equal status with male farmers, and equal access to resources, can lead to increases in farm yields by 20 to 30%.
These improvements also contribute to a richer life for villagers, especially youth, and can reduce rural to urban migration. Importantly, all these factors also contribute to lower birth rates, helping to control overpopulation.
Ultimately, sufficient capacity can be developed to make it possible to engage in significant social action to address problems identified in local communities.
Over the years, many Bahá’ís have taken action as individuals, through their professions or as participants in non-governmental organizations, to foster rural development.
A pioneer in this field was Richard St. Barbe Baker, known as the Man of the Trees, one of the most notable figures in the conservation movement in the 20th century. As assistant conservator of forests in Kenya and later Nigeria, Baker developed sustainable farming methods that would today be described as agroforestry and incorporated then-unknown concepts like fair trade and cultural and ecological tourism in his development model. He is also considered one of the fathers of the organic farming movement in Britain. The conservation organization he started in 1922 with Chief Josiah Njonjo, the Men of the Trees, was among the first international environmental non-governmental organizations, with members in more than one hundred countries. It is estimated that billions of trees were planted during his lifetime and since then by people he inspired and by organizations he founded or advised and assisted. Dr. Baker became a Bahá’í in the 1920s and was profoundly influenced by his contact with the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi, who was the first life member of the Men of the Trees.
Baker mentored many people who continue to realize his vision today. Hugh Locke, for example, founded the Smallholder Farmer’s Alliance in Haiti, with Timote Georges. The SFA applies a social enterprise model to help feed and reforest a renewed Haiti by establishing farmer cooperatives, building agricultural export markets, creating rural farm businesses, and contributing to community development. With 3,200 farmer members, 46% women, the SFA has established 19 tree nurseries and planted close to 6 million trees since 2010. Farmer members have achieved 40% estimated average increase in crop yields and 50% estimated average increase in household incomes.
Some 3,400 additional children of farmer-members are now in school as a result of improved incomes. The SFA has equal but separate membership for husband and wife farming partners, in addition to a micro-credit program, which includes leadership and business training, that is exclusively for women. What began as externally applied rules has begun to change cultural norms regarding the status of women, one community at a time.
Many Bahá’ís have made significant contributions to rural communities as individuals. For example, in Fiji, Austin Bowden-Kirby, a marine biologist, is director of the Coral Gardens Initiative. Coral reefs are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Their erosion in turn leads to the depletion of fisheries, undermining the economies of fishing communities. Bowden-Kerby, whose methods for restoring coral reefs received a National Geographic Ashoka Changemakers Award for environmental protection, now operates the 35-acre Sustainable Environmental Livelihoods Farm. The farm combines traditional permaculture with new methods and species that aim to reduce land-based threats to coral reefs, such as deforestation and poor agricultural practices that result in muddy, polluted runoff.
Bahá’í-inspired institutions have also launched development projects. The Barli Development Institute for Rural Women, for example, was started in 1985 by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of India. In 2001, it became an independent NGO. Based in Indore, the Institute has completed 105 residential training programs for more than 6,700 young women from 600 villages of Madhya Pradesh and other parts of India. Twice a year, women make the institute their home for six months and learn about farming, health care, hygiene, and business. Back in their villages, 95% of participants have used their new skills to generate income and many share their learning with the community. This has led to important improvements in living standards, including health. For example, Guinea worm disease has been eliminated from 302 villages through the efforts of Barli graduates working in collaboration with government agencies.
Another Bahá’í-inspired organization of particular note is FUNDAEC, possibly the most systematic effort yet in the Bahá’í world to generate knowledge about effective rural development processes. FUNDAEC, the Spanish acronym for The Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences, is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to fostering processes of learning, training, and development in the rural areas of Latin America.
FUNDAEC started in Colombia in the early 1970s with the aim of incorporating science, technology, and education in rural development. Using a balanced approach to the material and spiritual dimensions of development, it aims to raise the capacity of rural communities to define their own development paths and priorities. It does this through training programs—honed through action research—in alternative agricultural production, agroindustry, community organization, and formal education.
Its two main programs are the Tutorial Learning System (better known by its Spanish acronym, SAT), an innovative secondary level educational system used by more than 25,000 students throughout the Americas, and the University Center for Rural Well-Being (CUBR) for advanced training. One objective of these programs is to reduce rural-to-urban migration by creating more meaningful opportunities for youth and families in rural communities.
FUNDEAC’s development has been closely associated with the Ruhi training institute, which also started in Colombia. Together, the two were instrumental in creating conditions that led to the construction of the local Bahá’í House of Worship in Norte del Cauca, Colombia.
Participation in public discourse
Bahá’ís also engage in public discourse on the subject of rural development. The Bahá’í International Community (BIC), for instance, works with the United Nations in focus areas such as Realizing the Equality of Women and Men, Development and Community Building, Youth as Protagonists of Constructive Change, Religion in the Life of Society, and Human Rights and the Wellbeing of Humanity.
The BIC has issued a number of statements relevant to the theme of rural development. For example, From Deficit to Abundance: Seeing Capacity for Meaningful Contributions in all Populations and People was contributed to the 55th Session of the UN Commission for Social Development in 2017. It argues that the global community tends to look at issues of development from a position of deficit—that, for example, there is insufficient wealth available to finance development, while in fact there is an abundance of wealth. However, it becomes inaccessible when it accumulates in the hands of the wealthiest segment of society.
The statement goes on to argue for a new approach to development, involving an expansion of conceptions of expertise and sources of solutions. International fora often seek solutions from a relatively narrow set of sources. Research academics and policy specialists offer contributions that are valuable, but over-reliance on such resources can impoverish a discourse, leading to fixation on technical recipes and policy fixes. The BIC points out that insight is generated also by communities working to nurture more humane patterns of social interaction, by individuals striving to build capacity in others and by institutions seeking to apply traditional knowledge to contemporary challenges. Expertise of these kinds must be consciously sought and included in global discourse. Along these lines, the statement recommends that development agencies seek solutions from low-income populations themselves.
A major thrust of the Bahá’í contributions to the discourse on rural development and other global issues is an argument that the international community needs to review the framework for collective thought and action. Deep reflection, woven into the ongoing functioning of the entire United Nations system, will be needed. Notable progress was made over the course of the Millennium Development Goals, but the Sustainable Development Goals demand even wider vision and more creative thinking. It is time, then, to reassess foundational beliefs about ourselves, the nature of our relationships, and the realities shaping the world we live in, states the BIC. Only in this way can the groundwork for true and sustainable progress be laid.
In addition to the contributions of the BIC to the discourse on rural development, Bahá’í-inspired organizations such as the International Environment Forum (IEF) and Ethical Business Building the Future (EBBF) participate in various fora, large and small, dealing with preservation of the natural environment, agriculture, and rurality. In the United States, the Wilmette Institute has sponsored three courses on Bahá’í perspectives on agriculture and food. The courses have drawn participants from a number of countries, who study the Bahá’í teachings on these topics in depth, share their understanding, and often carry out projects to share their learning with others or initiate action.
Contributing to The Process of Rural Reconstruction
As previously mentioned, Bahá’u’lláh stated that agriculture and other work done in the spirit of service are considered forms of worship. This connection between service and worship is central to the function of the local Bahá’í Houses of Worship beginning to appear in rural communities around the world.
The Universal House of Justice points out that worship, though essential to the inner life of the human being and vital to spiritual development, must also lead to deeds that give outward expression to that inner transformation. The principle remains, however, that the spiritual precedes the material. First comes the illumination of hearts and minds by the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh and then the grassroots stirring of the believers wishing to apply these teachings to the daily life of their communities.
We can see this process in operation in the lead up to the construction of the local House of Worship in Norte del Cauca. Parallel to its involvement with the temple, the community undertook a reforestation project, creating a Bosque Nativo, or native forest, on an 11-hectare piece of land adjacent to the Temple site. The aim of this service project was to reintroduce native vegetation that has been decimated by years of monoculture plantations of sugarcane.
In the years since the reforestation project began, a number of plants have been recovered, some of which had been thought to be almost entirely lost to the northern region of Colombia. Local traditional farmers have supported the initiative, because they want to guarantee that future generations will know about these species that made up Norte del Cauca’s rich ecological diversity until recent decades. As one local farmer put it, This native forest that we are going to grow should be a school, should be a place of learning. People from neighboring villages donated seeds and plants for the land around the Temple, including the near-extinct Burilico tree, and local volunteers constructed a greenhouse.
These processes that ran in parallel with the construction of the House of Worship have already served to carry out its purpose, developing in the children, youth, and adults who live nearby an appreciation for the importance of a life centered on worship of God and service to humanity.
In this combination of service and worship we see an example of the reconstruction of rural life envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá taking shape. As programs of growth expand in Bahá’í communities throughout the world and conditions are created for the establishment of Mashriqu’l-Adhkár in thousands of locations, the Bahá’ís are building capacity to make a meaningful contribution to the renewal of rural life worldwide.