As the Bahá’í Faith celebrates the 64th anniversary of its establishment in Jamaica, the national governing body of the faith – the National Spiritual Assembly – would like to draw the attention of your readers to the ever present and nagging issue of poverty, in our island and worldwide, and to set out perspectives that can alleviate the matter, from a Bahá’í point of view.
For as long as can be remembered, even people of good conscience have dismissed the challenge posed by extreme poverty as something too overwhelming, too vast, and too complicated to be solved.
Extreme poverty is a condition faced by some 1.1 billion people, according to The World Bank. It is defined by a livelihood of less than US$1 a day, and as United Nations Millennium Project leader Jeffrey Sachs puts it in his book, The End of Poverty:
“Extreme poverty means that households cannot meet basic needs for survival. They are chronically hungry, unable to access health care, lack the amenities of safe drinking water and sanitation, cannot afford education for some or all of the children, and perhaps lack rudimentary shelter – a roof to keep the rain out of the hut, a chimney to remove smoke from the cook stove – and basic articles of clothing, such as shoes.”
The expenditure of about US$65 per year for each could end their misery, according to the project. That is enough to boost the poor to the first rung of the so-called development ladder, after which they can begin to climb further on their own.
Such an expenditure, which amounts to about US$150 billion a year for 20 years, is less than the 0.7 percent of the Gross National Product that developed nations of the world have collectively promised to devote to overseas development assistance at various UN conferences.
Given even the remote possibility that this new plan could end extreme poverty, the moral imperative for action becomes very high. Although the history of international development efforts is mixed, with the failure of various grand plans weighing heavily on the minds of donors, the sophisticated and careful analysis undertaken by the Millennium Project requires that we treat the plan very seriously.
The Baha’i worldwide community has long believed that poverty can and will be eradicated. More than 100 years ago, Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, said that humanity has entered a new age of maturity in which collective undertakings on a global scale would at long last become possible to the degree that universal peace and prosperity are on the near horizon.
In numerous statements on this matter, the Bahá’í Faith has outlined principles that it believes are essential to the prosecution of successful social and economic development. Many of these are echoed in the Millennium Report.
The Report, for example, calls for an emphasis on education, the recognition of the importance of women in the development process, and the need to encourage grassroots participation and the engagement of civil society. The report also stresses the importance of applying science and technology to the development process, and the need to encourage good governance.
These and other points have long been advocated by the Bahá’í Faith as fundamental to any overall plan for development. One thing, however, that Bahá’ís view as essential and which is not quite so clearly addressed in the report is the significance of spiritual principles in providing an underlying motivation and direction to the development process.
As the world considers the prospects for the kind of large-scale, globally coordinated effort that is proposed by the Millennium Development Project, it is worth reiterating the necessity of a spiritual perspective.
A purely materialistic approach to development ignores the essential reality of human nature and so fails to draw on the motivational powers of the human spirit. Untempered materialism also opens the door to corruption, abuse, and other problems that underlie the failure of the grand development schemes of the past.
Bahá’ís understand that by starting with a spiritual framework, however, such problems can be better overcome. For example, Bahá’ís view the equality of women and men as something more than simply a matter of human rights.
Rather, equality is raised to the level of spiritual principle. In this way, countervailing attitudes of superiority and submissiveness entrenched in many populations can be more easily transformed.
Likewise, the Bahá’í spiritual teachings elevate the idea of productive work to the level of worship. This concept, Baha’is believe, offers an important means for motivating those populations where an inadequate work ethic impedes development.
Or take the issue of so-called popular participation, which has become a buzzword for the idea that the target population must be engaged in the process of its own development. Bahá’ís wholeheartedly embrace this principle and more, long advocating that without the essential involvement of people at the grassroots, development efforts tend to be layered on top and, as such, nearly always falter and fail.
When the spiritual principle of the oneness of humanity is embraced by all participants, however, the genuine give-and-take that is necessary in any successful program of development assistance is better able to flourish.
All religions speak of the Golden Rule, asking us to consider the needs of our neighbour as much as ourselves. Bahá’ís believe that our sense of neighbourhood must today be enlarged to encompass the entire planet. We now live in a global neighbourhood, and the suffering of one is the suffering of all.
National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Jamaica
208 Mountain View Avenue. Kingston 6