For the Betterment of the World
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
The Worldwide Bahá’í Community’s Approach to Social and Economic Development
Prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development
"Take ye counsel together, and let your concern be only for that which profiteth mankind and bettereth the condition thereof . . .” - Baha'u'llah
Bahá’í efforts in the area of development seek to promote the social and material well-being of people of all walks of life, whatever their beliefs or background. Such endeavors are motivated by the desire to serve humanity and contribute to constructive social change. Together they represent a growing process of learning concerned with the application of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, along with knowledge accumulated in different fields of human endeavor, to social reality. Social action is pursued with the conviction that every population has the right and responsibility to mark out the path of its own progress. Indeed, every people and nation has a vital contribution to make in constructing a new society characterized by principles such as harmony, justice, and prosperity.
This article describes the ongoing process of learning about development from the local to the global level. It offers an illustration of how Bahá’í social and economic development is being carried out in practice. The sections that immediately follow provide a brief discussion on some of the main concepts that guide Bahá’í activities in the sphere of development and describe certain elements of the emerging approach being adopted throughout the world and being refined through experience.
The Bahá’í community’s commitment to social and economic development is rooted in its sacred scriptures, which state that all human beings “have been created to carry forward an everadvancing civilization.” Bahá’u’lláh wrote, “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” Fundamental to Bahá’í belief is the conviction that every person, every people, every nation has a part to play in building a peaceful and prosperous global society.
And the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight. . . .
. . . How excellent, how honorable is man if he arises to fulfill his responsibilities; how wretched and contemptible, if he shuts his eyes to the welfare of society and wastes his precious life in pursuing his own selfish interests and personal advantages. Supreme happiness is man’s, and he beholds the signs of God in the world and in the human soul, if he urges on the steed of high endeavor in the arena of civilization and justice
In traditional thinking about development, the role of religion in contributing to the betterment of the world has long been marginalized. “Religion,” a celebrated book from the early 1970s asserts, “should be studied for what it really is among the people: a ritualized and stratified complex of highly emotional beliefs and valuations that give the sanction of sacredness, taboo, and immutability to inherited institutional arrangements, modes of living, and attitudes. Understood in this realistic and comprehensive sense, religion usually acts as a tremendous force for social inertia.”
Yet over the past several decades, thinking in the field of development has been sobered by realistic assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the prevailing approach. Despite decades of rigorous effort and an enormous outlay of funds, numerous social and economic ills persist or may have worsened, such as the gap between the rich and the poor and a host of environmental issues. Social and economic development, it is now widely recognized, is a complex process, unresponsive to simple formulae that are based on raising income or the propagation of technological packages. Under intense pressure to find solutions, development thought has focused increasingly on people—their cultures, values, and worldviews, which, for the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants, are shaped by religion. In such an expanded perspective, it has become abundantly clear that materialistic approaches alone will never succeed in building the capacity of individuals and communities to take action and in releasing their power.
Rather the opposite: their tendency is to produce a debilitating effect. Interest has thus grown markedly in recent years in the potential contribution that spirituality and religion can make to development discourse. The aim is to bring religious insights to bear on the search for ways to harness the scientific, technical, and economic creativity of the modern world so as to improve the human condition and foster prosperity among the diverse inhabitants of the planet.
“Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements. ” — Bahá’u’lláh
Bahá’í experience in the field of development stretches back to the beginnings of the Faith in Iran during the nineteenth century. In that country, the community of adherents was able, in just a few generations, to advance from a population consisting largely of illiterate individuals to one whose members were in the forefront of many areas of endeavor. By 1973, for example, Iranian Bahá’ís had achieved a 100 percent literacy rate among women followers under the age of 40, in contrast to a national literacy rate among women of less than 20 percent at that time.
Widespread involvement in social and economic development, however, is a relatively new thrust for the Bahá’í world community; it rose in significance in the early 1980s, chiefly as a result of a substantial increase in the Bahá’í populations of many nations. The ensuing decade constituted a period of experimentation, characterized simultaneously by enthusiasm and hesitation, thoughtful planning and haphazard action, achievements and setbacks. While most projects found it difficult to escape the patterns of development practice prevalent in the world, some offered glimpses of promising paradigms of action. From this initial stage of diverse activity, the community emerged with the pursuit of social and economic development firmly established as a feature of its organic life and with enhanced capacity to forge over time a distinctly Bahá’í approach.
At various levels, from local to global, the process of learning about development has continued to unfold and evolve over the years. Facilitated by ongoing efforts to foster and support action, reflection on action, study, and consultation, to systematize the accumulating body of experience, and to build capacity in individuals, communities, and institutions, insights have continued to accrue as to how Bahá’í concepts, principles, and methods can be applied to the manifold dimensions of the social and economic life of populations.