Overview of Bahá’í Development Activities
Updated: Apr 11, 2019
Prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development
Bahá’í efforts in the field of development comprise a spectrum of activities. Generally speaking, they are initiated by individuals and small groups of friends in a locality, or by the Faith’s administrative institutions—local or national governing councils.
The vast majority are simple grassroots endeavors of limited duration. Conservative estimates indicate that there are close to 40,000 such activities undertaken over the course of a year, a small number of which are described in the section titled “First Stirrings”. Some efforts evolve into projects of a more sustained nature, with a commensurate degree of administrative structure. Examples may include schools, radio stations, and community gardens. Over 1,400 sustained projects of this scale are currently being carried out addressing any one of several areas of community life such as education, health, agriculture, or media. In more than 130 instances, projects have developed further—typically over the course of many years coordinating a growing number of lines of action—and taken the form of nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations. Generally referred to as “Bahá’í-inspired organizations,” these entities operate at a higher level of sophistication and often manage several programs and projects. The section titled “Growing Complexity” offers a few examples of such efforts. The map that follows provides an illustration of the scale of these various types of activity in countries around the world.
Regardless of where along the spectrum it falls, the involvement of Bahá’ís in efforts of social action represents an attempt to apply concepts and principles from the Bahá’í writings to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of their communities. Among these concepts and principles are the oneness of humankind, the equality of men and women, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, the harmony between science and religion, the inherent nobility of the human being, the recognition that every people has the right and responsibility to be the protagonist of its own development, the need for universal education, and the conviction that individuals are imbued with a twofold moral purpose: to develop and express their inherent potentialities and to contribute to the betterment of society.
Bahá’ís live and work in tens of thousands of localities spread across every continent of the globe. Viewed together, they can be said to represent the diversity of the entire human race. Wherever they reside, Bahá’í families and friends engage in efforts to draw insights from the Bahá’í Writings and to apply them to the material and spiritual progress of their communities. The pattern of community life that they strive to create is one in which acts of worship and a diversity of activities that promote the common good are woven together, and where all are free to participate, regardless of religious background, social standing, gender, or race.
Learning lies at the heart of the efforts under way. It involves an ongoing process of study, consultation, action, and reflection on action, all in light of the teachings of the Faith. Bahá’ís will typically gather with other members of their local community and, in one another’s homes, explore the application of spiritual teachings to daily life and to the life of the village or neighborhood in which they reside. In an environment free from any sense of superiority or claim to exclusive understanding of truth, these small groups of friends study materials that help them acquire the skills, attitudes, qualities, and knowledge needed to serve their communities. The energies of the participants are channeled into action through consultation, a process of collective decision-making prescribed in the Bahá’í writings. In addition to providing a framework within which collective decisions can be taken, consultation also serves as a means of harmonizing points of view, promoting unity among divers members of a community, of strengthening the bonds of trust and love between individuals and institutions, and of allowing new insights into complex issues to be brought forth and examined dispassionately.
Study and consultation leads to well-informed and purposeful action. Among the acts of service carried out by individuals and groups are classes that tend to the spiritual education of children, a moral empowerment program that channels the energies of young people toward the betterment of society, circles of study that extend the educational process to more youth and adults, and gatherings for collective worship that strengthen the devotional character of the community. By arising to carry out these and other acts of service, men and women, young and old alike, come to recognize that they have the power in their hands to re-create the world around them.
For many participating in this process of capacity building at the grassroots, the first stirrings to engage in social action will naturally follow, as they find themselves drawn into extending their endeavors to include activities that more explicitly improve one or another aspect of the social and economic life of their communities. Most of the initiatives that emerge are modest in nature and of fixed duration, coming to a close when their objectives have been met. They represent a response of a people to the particular challenges facing their own communities. As such, they may be related to any one of a variety of concerns depending on the social conditions of a place. Examples include health and sanitation, education, community organization, management of funds and resources, infrastructure, gender equality, arts and media, agriculture, and environmental protection.
It is estimated that over 40,000 activities of this scale occur annually in communities in which Bahá’ís reside. A few instances are described in the next two pages.
The collective of impact of many such initiatives in a single community is more than just the sum of the individual actions. Gradually, a culture emerges in which applying the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith in order to advance the social and material well-being of the locality becomes a way of life for increasing numbers of people. Insight is progressively gained into the many implications of vital concepts and principles on the progress of families and community life—universal participation, justice, the imperative of providing education for all, the need to ensure coherence between the material and spiritual aspects of life, the centrality of knowledge to social progress, freedom from prejudice, and the equality of men and women, to name a few.
Consider a few examples of places in which hundreds or thousands of individuals are participating in activities aimed at enhancing the spiritual and material prosperity of the community.