Preparation for Social Action Program
The Worldwide Bahá’í Community’s Approach to Social and Economic Development
Prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development
Through many years of research and action to address the needs of rural populations in Colombia, Fundación para la Aplicación y Enseñanza de las Ciencias (FUNDAEC), a Bahá’í-inspired organization based in Cali, developed an alternative secondary tutorial school system that aimed at building the capacity of young people to become protagonists of their own development. The “Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial” (SAT) program has been offered for more than three decades, reaching well over 100,000 students in Colombia alone and more recently being implemented in several countries in Latin America as a fully accredited, formal yet flexible option for secondary education recognized by government.
To respond to the interest shown in SAT by an increasing number of Bahá’í-inspired organizations around the world, and in consultation with OSED, FUNDAEC modified some of its curricular elements and assembled them into a program called “Preparation for Social Action” (PSA). The PSA program is organized around the concept of a capability, conceived as “developed capacity to think and act effectively within a particular sphere of activity and according to an explicit purpose.” The 25 units that make up the program help participants acquire one or more capabilities in the areas of language, mathematics, science, and processes of community life including education, agriculture, health, and environmental conservation. Each unit aims at enabling the participants to serve their regions as “promoters of community well-being”; this it does by imparting relevant concepts, presenting pertinent information, and strengthening a set of related skills and abilities, as well as attitudes and spiritual qualities.
Since its inception in 2006, the PSA program has been implemented in 17 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific, and has thus far reached over 10,000 participants. The countries in which the program has been established are Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Zambia, Uganda, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia, and India. In a further 15 countries, initial steps have been taken to build capacity for the introduction of the program, in response to local requests.
The following comments from individuals who have participated in the PSA program or other community members shed light on their perspectives on the development of their communities: A participant of the program in Papua New Guinea reflects on the development of his community:
“This is a new concept of education. It is very challenging, and we will encounter many questions as we go along. Reaching our vision requires a learning process. We are building a new kind of system that isn’t ready-made. It will evolve through action and reflection. We need to cooperate and work as a community, and have ownership of the things that we do. Development should be driven from our own community.”
A participant from Zambia describes his hopes for a reforestation project that he started with other members of his PSA group:
“I want to continue and incorporate an educational aspect into our interactions with the community so that people don’t just plant, but they plant with a purpose— for people to have an understanding of the environmental challenges we face and how such a project helps address these challenges. The rainfall pattern has changed a lot and reforestation projects are one way of solving certain problems facing our population. I understand that even if I plant as many plants as possible, the impact will be limited, but if many people come on board, the impact will be much greater.”
A mother in Vanuatu highlights the impact her daughter’s participation in the program has had on the family and community:
“When my daughter began participating [in] the PSA program, we began witnessing changes in our home. She brought changes to the way we used to do things, especially in relation to cleanliness, order, health, and hygiene. She taught us to wash our hands after using the toilet and rearranged our kitchen. She also prepared a special garden in which she planted various vegetables. [She received assistance] to purchase some nursery pots . . . plus plastic sheeting and seeds. She and [a group of] junior youth set up a little nursery. The seedlings from the nursery were planted in the community’s garden and in the [garden kept by] the junior youth. Through this process the junior youth and some other youth and the community are benefiting from my daughter’s new knowledge.”
Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. — Bahá’u’lláh
Glimpses from Around the World
Those who have participated in the PSA program have initiated a wide variety of projects aimed at contributing to one or another aspect of the social and economic lives of their communities. Such efforts have included campaigns to conduct research and to raise awareness about prevalent issues, projects providing services that respond to particular needs in a population, and endeavors to offer training and support so as to raise capacity within a community to take charge of its own progress. These initiatives have been carried out in areas such as agriculture, secondary production, economic activity, environmental conservation, health and health promotion, community organization, and education. The examples below provide illustrations of some of the projects which participants of the PSA program have initiated.
Papua New Guinea
In Daga, a group of PSA participants and tutors, supported by the Rays of Light Foundation, began a research project to learn about tackling major diseases affecting the local population. They found that the most prevalent ailments were diarrhea, tuberculosis, pneumonia, scabies, and sudden loss of consciousness. They began to document ways in which community members respond to these illnesses and sought input from the local health post to determine which methods, both modern and traditional, were most effective in prevention and cure.
A PSA group in the North Coast region of the country observed that there were many basic goods that were difficult for the people of their community to access. With FUNDAEC’s assistance, they started a small store to make these commodities more readily available to the local population. They took a modest loan to set up the shop and were able to pay it back with profits from their sales.
During his study of a unit of the PSA program about teaching young children, one participant became inspired to contribute to education in his community. When he completed the program, offered by the Kimanya-Ngeyo Foundation, he decided to open a nursery school for the local children. With support from the community, the school has grown to include over 100 students and four teachers. It has its own building constructed with assistance from community members and is being sustained through financial contributions of parents. The education provided by the school assists students to develop intellectual capacity as well as spiritual qualities.
In certain villages in eastern Cameroon, various institutions have begun to draw on the experience of adults and youth who have gone through the PSA program being implemented by Emergence Foundation for Education and Development. For instance, in 2014 when a significant number of refugees from neighboring Central African Republic sought shelter in the region, a number of previous participants in the program were approached by governmental and nongovernmental organizations to assist them in overseeing relief and development efforts. The PSA participants were also often consulted by local leaders before major decisions were made. In one case, a community had been invited to participate in an agricultural project that would have resulted in many farmers growing maize in monoculture. With the assistance of the PSA participants, the community leaders were able to understand the potential environmental, social, and economic impacts of the proposal and decided against proceeding with it.
Zambia: Fostering Local Initiative and Collective Action
The PSA program has been implemented in Zambia with the support of the Inshindo Foundation. While studying some of the PSA materials about the environment, a group in Mwinilunga—a district in the northwestern province of Zambia— explored the concept of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and carried out an analysis of certain ecosystems in their local area. Having deepened their appreciation of the vital importance of caring for the health of the natural environment, a few of the members of the group started to consider how they could help to restore some of the stressed ecosystems in the vicinity. There was one area, for example, in which many ponds could be found that used to contain fish but no longer did. They started efforts to revitalize the fish ponds and to raise consciousness in the community about how its members could fish in a way that would not deplete the stocks. There were also spaces that were once forest, but where the trees had mostly been cleared. They began to replant trees in these areas.
As the group continued to try to find ways to contribute to its community, it attracted more youth. They chose the name, “Youth Vision Group.” In addition to their environmental conservation projects, they decided to serve various members of the community, for instance, helping people, particularly the elderly, to clear the grass around their homes and fetch water and firewood.
They noticed that there were many young members of the community who had a lot of energy that could be channeled in more constructive ways. In response to this observation, the group decided to start studying some materials that aim to assist young people to apply their talents and abilities to the betterment of their community. Several youth were attracted to this study—it grew in size to reach some 40 members—and at the same time more and more community members, young and old alike, were touched by the dedication and enthusiasm with which it carried out its efforts.
The efforts of this group continued to evolve, along with its assessment of the needs of the community. For instance, at a certain point in time the government began to construct roads that required a number of community members to relocate. The group immediately began considering how to help people to rebuild their homes in new locations, so that they would not be forced to move without having a place to go. They also took the opportunity to help the community members think about how to build their homes in a way that could be more conducive to the health of the family and the environment. For instance, while a number of homes used to have latrines or rubbish pits next to the kitchen, the group encouraged them to change this practice in order to improve sanitation.
Over the years, the group’s efforts have helped stimulate a range of other development activities in the locality. For instance, a number of youth had started backyard gardens in order to grow vegetables to improve nutrition in the community; this practice has since spread to others in the village. Community members have also given greater significance to increasing the number of trees in the area, following the consciousness-raising efforts of the group on the importance of trees for the environment.
The various conversations and actions arising from the group’s endeavors have even contributed to improving certain aspects of the culture of the community. Barriers that had existed between people of different religious backgrounds gradually diminished as people began to work shoulder-toshoulder to contribute to the overall advancement of the community. Indeed, the shared understanding of the very term “development” has moved beyond one in which the local community is relegated to being a mere recipient of services to one in which people think of themselves as protagonists of their own progress. In the words of one of the tutors of the groups:
Before, people thought that development could only occur when others with money come in to fund projects. But then they started to see development as something that can come from within the community—that when we work together in unity we can build our community.