Social and Economic Development
A tangible expression of Bahá’í efforts to promote constructive change in society is found in the various social and economic activities of Bahá’í communities around the world. For the most part, these activities are very simple initiatives that take place at the grass-roots level. They are noteworthy not for their scope or scale but rather for the new concepts and fresh approaches they use to unlock the moral and creative capacities of individuals and communities.
The Canadian Bahá’í International Development Agency (CBIDA) is the agency of the Bahá’í Community of Canada dedicated to international social and economic development. Incorporated in 1981, CBIDA supports social and economic development activities initiated by partner agencies around the world. The Canadian Bahá’í Community, in partnership with organizations like the Canadian International Development Agency, currently supports two programs being operated by FUNDAEC, a Colombian non-governmental organization that promotes education as a strategy for integrated development. One of the programs, referred to as the SAT program, provides secondary education to over 30,000 students, primarily in agricultural communities in Colombia and Honduras. The other program, called “Preparation for Social Action,” is aimed at developing capabilities in youth to transform their lives and communities. Another SAT-related project in Honduras, entitled “Building Sustainable Livelihoods through Agriculture,” is being implemented by the Bayan Association in partnership with CBIDA. Past initiatives include primary health-care projects in Kenya, Zambia, and Uganda; culturally appropriate radio in Bolivia and Ecuador; integrated rural development in Haiti; and literacy and vocational training programmes in India.
In Canada, there are two Bahá’í inspired schools. One is the Nancy Campbell Collegiate for the performing arts (in Stratford, Ontario), and the Roger White Academy (in Newmarket, Ontario), that are privately run, though inspired by Bahá’í principles.
All human beings, Bahá’u’lláh states, have been “created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.”1 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.
Bahá’í efforts in the field of social and economic development generally take the form of grass-roots 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 programmes with permanent administrative structures.
The distinguishing features of the Bahá’í approach to development are the principles and processes that are 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. Thus, Bahá’í development initiatives are designed to engage and benefit all members of a community, not only Bahá’ís.
At the heart of all Bahá’í initiatives 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.
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.
Workers in the field of development 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 therefore focuses on increasing the capacity of individuals, communities, and institutions to take concrete steps to 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 work to apply the methods of science and the moral and spiritual insights of 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.
Since the beginning, Bahá’í initiatives have emphasized collective decision-making and collective action at the grass-roots level. Consultation among all members of the 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 also 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 into new patterns of cooperation is in some respects more important than the specific practical goals of development projects themselves.
Bahá’í development activities are initiated either by Bahá’í administrative institutions or by individuals and groups. Together, these activities contribute to a global process of learning about the Bahá’í approach to social and economic development. They presently fall into three general categories.
Activities of Fixed Duration
Most Bahá’í social and economic development efforts are fairly simple activities of fixed duration in which Bahá’ís in villages and towns around the world apply spiritual principles to the problems and challenges confronting their localities. More than 1450 endeavours of this kind exist, including tree-planting and clean-up projects, health camps, workshops and seminars on such themes as race unity and the advancement of women, and short-term training courses.
The second category of Bahá’í social and economic development consists of more than 225 ongoing projects. The vast majority are academic schools, while others focus on areas such as literacy, basic health care, immunization, substance abuse, child care, agriculture, the environment, and microenterprise.
- Organizations with the Capacity to Undertake Complex Action
Certain Bahá’í development efforts have achieved the stature of development organizations with relatively complex programmatic structures and significant spheres of influence. They systematically train human resources and manage a number of lines of action to address problems of local communities and regions in a coordinated, interdisciplinary manner. There are more than 31 such organizations located on every continent.
While most projects begin at the local level, this does not exclude the possibility of action at higher levels. In recent years, the Bahá’í community has initiated global campaigns in the areas of literacy, primary health-care training, and the advancement of women. In some cases, these initiatives have involved collaboration with national governments and international agencies. The campaigns demonstrate the potential for widespread implementation of development programmes throughout the global network of Bahá’í communities.