By Helena Hastie
“Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.”[i]
This clear statement from the Universal House of Justice, the supreme institution of the worldwide Baha’i community, is laden with implications. Baha’is all across the world view their work as contributing to the process of building communities from the grassroots up. How then can a Western development agency translate its vision of assisting communities in less economically prosperous countries without carrying out a project for unknown ‘others’?
The worldwide endeavours of the Baha’i community are coordinated by an international Office of Social and Economic Development which monitors projects across the globe, and helps development agencies to learn from each others’ experience. This office writes:
“ Some communities… ‘can offer assistance abroad, while, at the outset, others must of necessity receive assistance.’ Over the past two decades, efforts have been made to translate this vision into reality by establishing systems through which financial resources can be channelled from more materially prosperous countries to those with less means at their disposal, without the least trace of paternalism and in a way that empowers communities in the recipient countries.”[ii]
This forms a key part of the mandate of the Baha’i Agency for Social and Economic Development in the UK (BASED-UK), an independent charity established in 1993. The Agency was set up to coordinate efforts in the field of international development, and remains devoted to that task. The challenge of recognising the need for countries to grow their own projects from the grassroots up, and resisting the temptation to jump in with solutions and pre-designed projects, is one that BASED-UK is acutely aware of. Instead, BASED-UK takes great joy in collaborating with development agencies formed in-country which are in the best position to design and implement successful projects. BASED-UK partners with these organisations and assists them to access funding sources in the UK.
Currently, BASED-UK collaborates closely with the Mongolian Development Centre, and with the Inshindo Foundation in Zambia, on projects primarily aimed at capacity building. Below are some photos taken at the Mongolian Development Centre:
The projects are aimed at raising up local citizens who are committed to a vision of transforming their own communities, and who feel equipped with the necessary knowledge, insights and skills to be able to do this. The main strands for this are educational and training programmes. In Mongolia, the MDC runs programmes for early years education, for youth education (ages 11-14) and for community banking. In each programme, volunteers are trained and raised up to conduct activities in their own locality. In Zambia, a programme called ‘Preparation for Social Action’ engages youth aged 15-25 in groups which study together and begin to apply what they are learning by designing socio-economic development projects in their communities.
This offers a glimpse into what we understand as ‘capacity building’. Rather than delivering a service to needy people, these projects are designed to bring out the capacity within the affected people themselves. If we are truly to transform communities then we need to use all of the capacity that local people have to understand their own reality and build communities they can be proud of.
“Irrespective of its scope and scale, all social action seeks to apply the teachings and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population, however modestly. Such endeavours are distinguished, then, by their stated purpose to promote the material well-being of the population, in addition to its spiritual welfare. That the world civilization now on humanity’s horizon must achieve a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life is central to the Baha’i teachings.”[iii]
[i] The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010, ‘To the Baha’is of the World’
[ii] Office of Social and Economic Development, Bahá’í World Centre, Feb 2009, ‘Channelling Financial Resources to Bahá’í Development Projects’
[iii] The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010, ‘To the Baha’is of the World’