Read: 1987 Sept 09, Social Progress


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*** SOCIAL PROGRESS
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Written statement to the United Nations Interregional Consultation Interregional Consultation on Development Social Welfare Policies and Programmes.

Vienna, Austria
7-15 September 1987

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There is wide agreement in this Consultation on the aim set forth in the Declaration on Social Progress and Development for the continuous raising of material and spiritual standards of living of all members of society. The Declaration indicates that these standards may be raised through the attainment of a number of goals, including through:

"The establishment of a harmonious balance between scientific, technological and material progress and the intellectual, spiritual, cultural and moral advancement of humanity." (Article 13 (b))

In the view of the Baha'i International Community, comprising some four million people residing in 166 independent countries, the means for achieving a balance of material and spiritual advancement deserve to be examined closely when formulating guidelines and principles for social development. An examination of the requirements for this balance, we believe, would illustrate the importance for material progress of spiritual factors, including social harmony, integration, and unity within the individual and in society. Many contemporary trends and movements conduce to a state of co-operation and unity. These co-operative trends, which may be observed between sectors, nations and different organizational institutions, could, if given wide and systematic support, lead to a rapid channeling of the earth's abundant resources and the application of its technical know-how for the redress of current material problems. Religion has played and continues to play an important role in facilitating a spirit of cooperation as well as of service and harmony. It may be time to take a critical look at the role of religion in nurturing the spiritual endowments of the individual and societies. To quote the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing council of the Baha'i Faith:

"The endowments which distinguish the human race from all other forms of life are summed up in what is known as the human spirit; the mind is its essential quality. These endowments have enabled humanity to build civilizations and to prosper materially. But such accomplishments alone have never satisfied the human spirit, whose mysterious nature inclines it towards transcendence, a reaching towards an invisible realm, towards the ultimate reality, that unknowable essence of essences called God. The religions brought to mankind by a succession of spiritual luminaries have been the primary link between humanity and that ultimate reality, and have galvanized and refined mankind's capacity to achieve spiritual success together with social progress.... No serious attempt to set human affairs aright, to achieve world peace, can ignore religion."

No doubt some observers would disagree, observing that religion has sometimes retarded, instead of advanced, social progress. In our view, such cases represent a distortion of religion. History amply illustrates the preponderating influence exerted by religion in the vital expressions of civilization. Its indispensability to social order has repeatedly been demonstrated by its direct effect on both laws and morality.

We would strongly suggest that this and any discussion of social policy give recognition to the role of spiritual principle in the functioning of society and indeed of government. Neither in theory nor in practice, should we separate material and moral affairs in a dichotomous way. The moral capacities and strengths of a nation -- and of the global community -- may be regarded as its ultimate form of wealth. Deficiencies in this form or wealth too easily lead to material effects as, for example, an unfair distribution of resources or, in the case of war, the near or total destruction of the physical infrastructure.

In the formulation of social welfare policies -- policies that touch on the problems of unemployment, shelter, health, food distribution, the family, crime, and education -- the Baha'i International Community would suggest that the following principles be taken into account, principles that we consider to be spiritual but which have a clear societal expression.

Humankind is one interdependent whole. Any approach to social problems must recognize the global nature of such problems. Examples of this interrelatedness abound: the flow of refugees and of international migrants seeking better jobs and living standards; the impact of international economic events on local and national economies; the effect of trans-national media and communications networks on raising the awareness and expectations of peoples. The list could go on. It is clear, however, that a common framework is needed. And any such framework should not only recognize the world's interrelatedness, it should encourage and uphold it. To do otherwise is to ignore reality. "It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but for him who loveth the whole world." [Baha'i Writings]

The emancipation of women and the achievement of full equality between the sexes. Some progress in this regard has been made, but it must be accelerated, with the help of education and widespread attitudinal change encompassing policy makers and planners as well as the people at large. According to the Baha'i view, women are the first educators of humanity in their role as mothers, and thus girls should be given preference in receiving education. Since it is through educated mothers that the benefits of knowledge can most effectively and rapidly be diffused throughout society, this sense of educational priority for women should be founded not only in the family but in the national policy. The denial of female equality perpetrates an injustice against one-half of the population and promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the work place and to society at large, thereby creating an obstacle to progressive and peaceful development. There are no grounds, moral, practical, or biological, upon which such denial can be justified.

Popular participation is essential to the success of social programmes. It promotes the dignity of individuals and enables communities to benefit from the outflow of human creativity and spirit. Too often social programmes and policies have failed because they lacked genuine input and participation from the very people and communities they were designed to serve.

Social problems are inextricably linked to moral and ethical values; without an attempt to address and, indeed, fortify moral and ethical standards, social policies and programmes are unlikely to succeed. Problems of corruption, crime and erosion of family-life in particular result from a poverty of ethical values. Human well-being requires material wealth, certainly, but even more so it requires moral and spiritual wealth. How to identify and incorporate in social policy those factors that best promote spiritual wealth is a challenge that policy makers must increasingly face.

In attempting to improve the social welfare of local Baha'i communities, and of the societies of which they are a part, the Baha'i International Community has striven to build on the principles mentioned above. While the local Baha'i communities are in a comparatively early stage of organic growth and therefore far from complete, there are many encouraging elements in their development. For example, the chief implementator of Baha'i social and other development efforts is the elected local Baha'i assembly. In all, there are more than 25,000 such assemblies around the world. Many of them have already developed the administrative capacity and skills to meet regularly and frequently with the community as a whole to exchange information and consult about social issues. The result is an evolving and highly flexible system of administration and operation that, while in agreement on broad common principles, effectively responds to a range of grassroots needs and concerns. The flexibility built into the system works to preserve social harmony while encouraging individual expression.

From the statements and papers circulating at this Consultation it is quite clear that there is a wide agreement that development has a spiritual and societal as well as a material or technical side. The spiritual and the material dimensions are complementary but their individual components may need to be examined anew in order that they be incorporated into policies that effectively respond to the changes taking place in societies across the globe, changes that are, we believe, the expression of humanity's transition from an age of adolescence with all its turbulence to one of adulthood where spiritual values gain prominence, values such as a sense of excellence, a willingness to sacrifice, integrity, trustworthiness, capacity for co-operation and a desire for unity. To the degree to which we possess these qualities when in the process of formulating and implementing policies, so will the means be found for achieving more fair, peaceful and yet dynamic communities at the local, national and international levels.

Distributed at the Conference in accordance with the established procedures in the quantities and languages in which the statements are made available to the Secretariat of the United Nations.

The designations employed, the presentation of material and the views expressed in this paper are those of the submitting organization(s) and do not necessarily reflect the practices and views of the Secretariat of the United Nations in any of these respects.

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UN Document #E/CONF.80/NGO

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