Oct 15th, 2008
The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. Baha’u’llah, Baha’i writings
Today is Blog Action Day on the theme of poverty. Over 9,000 bloggers are around the world are blogging about this today.
I am sure many blogs will look at the characteristics and manifestations of poverty:
* lack of income sufficient to ensure a sustainable livelihood
* lack of productive resources sufficient to ensure a sustainable livelihood
* ill health
* limited or lack of access to education and other basic services
* increasing morbidity and mortality from illness
* homelessness and inadequate housing
* unsafe environments
* increasing criminal activity
* social discrimination
* lack of participation in decision-making
* lack of participation in civil, social, political and cultural life
* human trafficking
These are, in a manner of speaking, symptoms of an ill world. Endeavours to eradicate poverty focus on changing these — and they need to be changed. But we must ask ourselves — why have these symptoms arisen? What the root causes of illness of humanity, if I can put it that way?
The Baha’i Faith suggests that there are two underlying causes to the present illness of the world, to the growing poverty of much of its population and, in another context, to its lack of peace. These are, first, its lack of unity and, second, its reliance on materialistic solutions alone.
The Lack of Unity in the World
Bahá’u’lláh wrote that the `dis-ease’ afflicting humanity, the root of its illness, is its lack of unity.
I would suggest that we rarely consider that the disunity of the human race is the cause of its lack of prosperity. Rather, we tend to think of poverty as the absence of money — and that is certainly part of it. However, to think that poverty is exclusively an absence of money encourages people to think that the answer to poverty must then be money. We often hear people talking about `throwing money at a problem’ (in both the positive and negative senses) or `throwing good money after bad’ and `throwing money into a black hole’ (when referring to economic aid or charitable giving, for example). These last remarks are intended, I am sure, to underscore the frustration ordinary people and governments experience grappling with the issue of poverty — the feeling that no matter what you do, poverty is never going to go away — `the poor are always with us’. However, they do highlight the crux of the matter: poverty is not simply an absence of money and its solution is not merely a question of adding more money. Even when you add money, the basic, underlying problems causing poverty and keeping people poor are not really resolved. Money does not really change attitudes. Money does not always give people dignity. Money is needed, yes, but it needs to come with a whole host of concepts and values and visions that make the application of money worthwhile and its effect both positive and permanent. We have also seen the ill effects of simply giving people money — the creation of a `hand-out’ society that does not encourage people to work, to use resources wisely, etc. The other side of this is that extreme wealth — and most westerners can be considered to be extremely wealthy in contrast to most of the rest of the world — also creates problems — the `you owe it to me’, `I’m-all-right-Jack’, `there is no such thing as community’, `every man for himself’, indulgent, fat, wasteful, unthinking sort of society the flawed nature of which this very week we have all witnessed.
Recent UN conferences have highlighted that the resolution of poverty — of indeed any human problem, is something more than merely money. Effective political will, participatory decision-making, trustworthiness and transparency in governance and much more are pointed to as necessary prerequisites for the eradication of poverty, for the growth of prosperity universally. However, even these cannot be forthcoming unless we understand the interconnectedness of the human race, its singleness and wholeness, and begin to act in ways that demonstrate that connectedness. That is, until we begin to act as if we ARE all members of one human family, we will continue to show the illness of disunity.
When Baha’u’llah wrote to Queen Victoria in 1868 he compared the world to the human body. The various cells, organs, tissues, bones, parts and so on of the body are all different but are all required to function together to make the body achieve its potential. When one part of the body is in pain, or is unfit, the rest of the body is aware of it responds — the whole body feels unwell and is unable to function properly when even a tiny disorder occurs — think of having a cold or even a splinter in one’s finger.
So too the human race, Baha’u’llah says.
This idea seems very simple but in fact touches on the organisation of the entire social fabric. As Donne says, no man is an island. The sorrow of one is the sorrow of all. This sentiment now must move beyond the poetic and into reality. It requires a fundamental rethinking and restructuring of all the social and economic institutions of the planet.
Reliance on materialistic solutions alone
The Baha’i International Community has for years been striving to put before humanity a radically different approach to eradicating poverty.
It points out that the assumptions underlying most development planning and poverty-action programmes are essentially materialistic, that is, their purpose is to bring to all societies the means of achieving the kind of material prosperity that already exists in other parts of the world. We are now learning that the materialistic way of life is not, perhaps, all that great. Some of the features and characteristics of poor communities are also features of very wealthy communities and individuals and are not very attractive or worth having: increasing mortality from illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, increasing criminal activity, family breakdown, domestic violence, increased emotional health disorders, increased reliance on drugs and substances and material possession to fabricate happiness, increased workplace stress, the use of trafficked women and children for sexual pleasure, falling literacy rates, corruption, lawlessness and the trivialization of politics.
This is not to say that material things are worthless or, in some patronizing way, to suggest that people who do not have material things should not strive for them, as they are more dangerous than valuable. Nor am I suggesting that now that westerners have everything, we have discovered how hollow these things are and so `warn’ the rest of the people not to aspire to them (and thereby ensuring that we continue to hog them for ourselves). The Bahá’í Faith does not teach that poverty is a wonderful state to be in. Rather, Bahá’ís recognize that all people need good housing, food, jobs, health care, education and water, as well as beauty, art, fun and leisure in their lies. But by focusing solely on the amelioration of material conditions, without addressing the underlying issues that keep people in poverty on the one hand and create completely unsustainable gross wealth on the backs of those very people on the other, we will not be able to eradicate poverty or the extreme wealth that feeds it.
Thus as well as focusing on the immediate needs of people – providing food and fresh water and shelter and health care – even greater effort is needed to find and apply values, spiritual concepts and principles that will transform individuals, governments and social systems around the globe and provide a prosperous life for everyone.
By `spiritual’ I do not mean here vague ideas and pious hopes of sweet sentimentality. Rather I mean that cluster of practical virtues and values born out of a vision and understanding of God’s purpose for humanity that underpins our relationships with each other at every level — personal, family, community, national and global. We can identify some of these virtues as absolutely imperative for the smooth running of any social unit, whether it be the family or the world: justice, trustworthiness, honesty, courtesy, patience, love, selflessness, etc.
What this comes down to is recognizing the spiritual dimension of human reality and fostering a culture in which the moral, ethical, emotional and intellectual development of the individual are of primary concern. Such an orientation enables individuals and communities to become constructively engaged in the processes of their communities, to be service-oriented and to work for the material and spiritual well-being of the whole community, rather than to store up wealth for themselves. The big challenge — while we are simultaneously trying to keep people from starving – is to redesign and develop our communities around those principles such as love, honesty, moderation, humility, hospitality, justice and unity — which promote social cohesion and without which no community is sustainable for long.
So, are there any signs that the world is responding to the need for this new paradigm?
First, there is a growing consciousness that the root causes of poverty need to be examined and changed. We used to think the root causes of poverty were people’s laziness, colour, race or want of `civilization’. We are now beginning believe the root cause to be basically a lack of global social cohesion — that is, a lack of unity, which begets a lack of caring.
Second, this consciousness has been expressed by the international community in more and more cogent forms in the last half decade. And not only by governments but by NGOs, civil society and partners of all kinds from business to the academics to the scientists. The solutions proffered are more and more basic, more and more fundamental — not merely the provision of money, of shelter, or services — important as these are — but recognition that it is attitudes that must be changed if the money applied is not going to go down a black hole. At a simple level, ethical standards must be raised if aid is to get to those for whom it is intended and not line the pocket of a profiteer.
Third, there is a growing awareness of the need to take account of the spiritual dimension of human reality and there is beginning to be the political and social will to seek to foster a culture in which the moral, ethical, emotional and intellectual development of the individual are of primary concern.
What are some of the elements that we need to develop if we are to combat poverty? They are the same ones we need to develop is we are to make our societies less crime-ridden, more gentle, less violent:
* an increase in the understanding of the essentially spiritual nature of the human being and a recognition that a person’s spiritual needs must be met as well as his or her physical ones — indeed without attention to this area, no plan of material welfare will really stick — spiritual values are the foundation of material progress and prosperity
* the development of a new work ethic — Baha’u’llah says that work done in the spirit of service to others is worship
* stewardship of the earth’s resources
* ethical practices in government and business
* a consciousness of the concept of unity in diversity
* new forms of governance need to be developed that are value-driven, participatory (on all levels — local, national, international), and transparent
* fostering the advancement of women and the participation of women at all levels of governance
* the development of the spirit of service and voluntarism
* the extension of virtues-based education
* the development of conflict avoidance and resolution through consultation
* the promotion of the family as the basic unit of the community and assistance to the family to enable it to provide for its members
Interestingly, UNESCO’s (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) programme for the eradication of poverty has many of these elements:
* to denounce intolerance and prevent the development of social apartheid between the `city of the citizens’ and the `city of the excluded’
* to affirm solidarity as a fundamental value of democracy and human rights: the encouragement of cultural and social pluralism and the promotion of integration through social policies.
* to promote a culture of peace
* development and peace are intimately linked: aim at peace-building
* turn people into citizens through education in citizenship
Will we be able to eradicate poverty? It seems to me that we can only do this by a radical rethink of the nature of our selves and our communities, locally, nationally and globally. We have the technology — we now need the vision and the will — first to change ourselves. Baha’is accept that Baha’u’llah has provided the vision — we have to provide the will.
(PS – Have a look at the Baha’i International Community’s publication Eradicating Poverty: Moving Together as One)