In 1995 the Baha’i International Community’s Office of Public Information, in Haifa, prepared a statement entitled The Prosperity of Humankind that was distributed for the first time at the United Nations World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen. The statement, based on insights derived from the Baha’i Writings and an analysis of contemporary society, shares some important concepts and principles for building a strategy for global development. I truly loved reading it and thought of sharing my personal views on the statement in the hope it motivates others to study it if you have not done so yet (in can be read in full online or downloaded from the Baha’i Reference Library).
The document starts by acknowledging that “the ideal of world peace is taking on form and substance” as obstacles and conflicts once deemed irreparable are being overcome, creating in the masses of humanity and in its leaders, a hope for the future of humanity. It continues stating that signs of this hope are multiplying throughout the world but it warns that the process to channel and seize these impulses for change,
must be galvanised by a vision of human prosperity in the fullest sense of the term – an awakening to the possibilities of the spiritual and material well-being now brought within grasp.
It then presents a perspective that “all earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on their collective inheritance to take up, consciously and systematically, the responsibility for the design of their future” and that such a vision requires a re-examination of the attitudes and assumptions that have underlined approaches to social and economic development that encompasses practical methods, long-term goals, and even the conception of human nature itself.
One thing that struck me was how the statement contrasts a vision of development as a formula to achieve material prosperity, with one that explicitly states that unless development looks above and beyond the material to the spiritual dimensions of life, it will never effectively reduce the
ever-widening abyss that separates the living standards of a small and relatively diminishing minority of the world’s inhabitants from the poverty experienced by the vast majority of globe’s population.
I was also moved by how this document describes how everyone, no matter their situation, has potential to affect change. In this context, the masses of humanity cannot simply be recipients of aid and training or “limited to a range of choices formulated by agencies inaccessible to them and determined by goals that are often irreconcilable with their perceptions of reality.” A new form of development must evolve to appreciate the response of the world’s peoples themselves in planning for our planet’s future.
Oneness of Humanity
It suggests that a form of global development that is conscious of the oneness of humanity, and the implications of this truth, “presents fundamental challenges to the way that most of the institutions of contemporary society carry out their functions”. One difference this would mean for development is that it would try to engage all the world’s population to pursue their responsibilities and rights in shaping our collective destiny. The document shares an analogy provided by Baha’u’llah that compares the world to the human body:
it is precisely the wholeness and complexity of the order constituting the human body – and the perfect integration into it of the body’s cells – that permit the full realization of the distinctive capacities inherent in each of these component elements. No cell lives apart from the body, whether in contributing to its functioning or in deriving its share from the well-being of the whole […] the purpose of biological development transcends the mere existence of the body and its parts.
I think the document explores that justice is the ruling principle of successful social organisations with an expression at the individual level as
the faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood […] calls for fair-mindedness in one’s judgment, for equity in one’s treatment of others, and is thus a constant if demanding companion in the daily occasions of life
and at the group level as
the indispensable compass in collective decision making because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved.
The two principles mentioned so far, the oneness of humankind and justice, call for a redefinition of human relationships. This can only be built on the process of consultation that helps with decision making as “options are examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected”, and the expanding of our view of the world.
The document explores further the theme of consultation, the issue of human rights, the principle of collective trusteeship, and the role of science and religion in expanding knowledge.
Organisation of Material Means
It further challenges economic thinking to “accept unambiguously” the purpose of development as “laying the foundations for a new social order that can cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness” where material benefits are perceived as the means, and not ends in themselves, and individuals as protagonists of a better world, not merely as consumers. It predicts that
The classical economic models of impersonal markets in which human beings act as autonomous makers of self-regarding choices will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice. Society will find itself increasingly challenged to develop new economic models shaped by insights that arise from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community.
Conception of Power
Such transformation also invites a contemplation of the conception of power, currently viewed in a competitive lens where power is “expressed simply in terms of means to be used against others”. It explains that as long as this traditional view of power is maintained, it is:
…as irrelevant to the needs of humanity’s future as would be the technologies of railway locomotion to the task of lifting space satellites into orbits around the earth…
I think it emphasizes, on the other hand, the importance of the creative resources that humanity has been tapping throughout the ages: the power of truth, the force of character, the influence of example and the power of unity.
The statement concludes with this powerful appeal from Baha’u’llah, only partially quoted, to the faith and resolve required from the peoples of the world in building a new world:
Be united in counsel, be one in thought. May each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday. Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches. Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion. Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavors be spent in promoting your personal interest.
If reading these reflections have piqued your interest in this amazing document, you can read The Prosperity of Humankind on the website of the Baha’i Reference Library.