Social and Economic Development and the Baha'i Faith
Updated: Nov 10, 2019
"All human beings, Bahá'u'lláh states, have been "created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization."
The creation of a peaceful global society that fosters both individual and collective well-being is at the heart of the Bahá'í vision of the future. Within the framework of a growing community concerned with moral and spiritual transformation, social and economic development is one expression of the Bahá'í commitment to realizing this vision.
The worldwide Bahá'í community, as an organic whole, transcends divisions prevalent in society today, such as "North" and "South", "developed" and "underdeveloped". Social and economic development efforts are undertaken by Bahá'ís everywhere, irrespective of the degree of material prosperity achieved by their nations, as they strive to apply the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh to the gradual process of building a new civilization. Every individual is a potential contributor to this process.
Thus, Bahá'í efforts in the field of social and economic development generally take the form of grassroots initiatives carried out by small groups of individuals in the towns and villages in which they reside. As these initiatives evolve, some grow into more substantial programs with permanent administrative structures. Yet very few can be compared with the kind of complex development projects promoted and funded by government agencies and large multilateral organizations.
The distinguishing features of the Bahá'í approach to development are the principles and processes being employed by Bahá'í communities around the world rather than the number or size of projects. In a very real sense, social and economic development activities are an expression of faith in action. Consequently, Bahá'í development initiatives are designed to engage and benefit all the members of a community and not just Bahá'ís.
At the heart of all Bahá'í development undertakings is the recognition of a deep and inseparable connection between the practical and spiritual aspects of daily life. Creating a desire for social change and instilling confidence that it can be achieved must ultimately come from an awakening of the human spirit. While pragmatic approaches to problem solving play a key role in development initiatives, tapping the spiritual roots of human motivation provides the essential impulse that ensures genuine social advancement.
Individual and community development, Bahá'ís believe, require both the "light" of spiritual awareness and the "lamp" of material resources. Material advancement is not viewed as an end in itself, but rather as a vehicle for moral, spiritual, and social progress. Meaningful social change does not simply result from the acquisition of technical skills, but more importantly from the development of qualities and attitudes that foster cooperative and creative patterns of human interaction.
In villages and cities around the globe, Bahá'ís are attempting to construct patterns of living that truly integrate the spiritual and practical. This understanding of development anticipates the emergence of communities in which the application of spiritual values such as justice, trustworthiness, and generosity will enhance material well-being, while material resources and advances will make possible new avenues of spiritual endeavor that will promote cohesion and unity of purpose within and across societies.
"The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquility of peoples, and the peace of all that dwell on earth", Bahá'u'lláh explains, "are among the principles and ordinances of God."
Workers in the development field have increasingly come to understand that the creation and diffusion of knowledge lie at the heart of social progress. The Bahá'í experience confirms this understanding. Bahá'í social and economic development is therefore focused on increasing the capacity of individuals, communities, and institutions to take concrete steps that promote their spiritual and material well-being. This process of capacity building involves a global enterprise of learning in which Bahá'ís from virtually every cultural and ethnic background are working to apply the methods of science and the moral and spiritual insights found in the Bahá'í teachings to their particular local conditions. It is a process of action, evaluation, and adjustment; one in which local communities gradually improve their ability to define, analyze, and meet their own needs.
From the beginning, Bahá'í activities in the development area have emphasized collective decision-making and collective action at the grassroots level. Consultation among all the members of a community is central to the success of every Bahá'í development project. The use of consultative methods often promotes novel solutions to community problems and greater fairness in the distribution of community resources, and serves to uplift those members of a community, such as women and minorities, who have been historically excluded from decision-making. Experience has shown that consultation is an indispensable tool that enables communities to sustain and modify development initiatives and thereby contributes to self-sufficiency and a higher quality of life. The ability of people to be drawn together in new patterns of participation and interaction is in some respects more important than the specific practical goals of development projects themselves.
From the Bahá'í perspective, then, the set of capacities necessary for building up the social, economic, and moral fabric of collective life must draw upon the resources of both the mind and the heart. By fully integrating spiritual principles into community development activities, ideas, values, and practical measures emerge that promote self-reliance and safeguard human dignity. In this way, patterns of dependency are avoided and conditions of inequality are progressively eliminated.
Bahá'u'lláh refers to the human being "as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value," and states that the purpose of life and society is to generate creative processes which serve to release those "gems" of human potential. As individuals begin to cultivate their innate capacities, so the community around them is transformed, and impetus is given to "an ever-advancing civilization." It is therefore the hope of the Bahá'í community that its current modest efforts in the development field will serve to promote a model of capacity building that results in widespread moral and material advancement.