Influencing processes towards world peace: the external affairs aspects of social & economic development and environmental activities

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Leith, Barney

Influencing processes towards world peace: the external affairs aspects of social & economic development and environmental activities

Barney Leith

Paper presented at the Bahá'í Development and Environment Summit
Sidcot, UK, 15-18 August 1999

In 1994 the Universal House of Justice defined two objectives for external affairs work. The one I propose to focus on today is, to quote, "To influence processes towards world peace".1

The External Affairs Strategy document issued by the Universal House of Justice sets the context for what the House of Justice has elsewhere referred to as "this increasingly important field of service":2

The Bahá'í community has entered a new stage in its external affairs work -- at a time when widespread disorder has thrust society into a worsening disequilibrium. A feeling of rudderlessness looms as world leaders seem unable to provide coherent answers to the questions of the times. There is a sense of vacuum in the absence of any moral leadership.3

However, people are increasingly seeking that moral leadership and, since the Bahá'í administrative system has a unique capacity to "unify people in global action"4, people are turning to Bahá'ís as a "major resource in assisting with canalizing the forces for development and peace".5

The House of Justice then turns its attention to the Lesser Peace, that long-anticipated revolution in the affairs of the world:

The Lesser Peace anticipated by Bahá'u'lláh will, of course, be established by the nations themselves. It seems clear that two entities will push for its realization: the governments of the world, and the peoples of the world through the instrumentality of the organizations of civil society.

It is clear, then, that this peace (which Bahá'ís, of course, see as the first stage in the long-term development of a unified and deep-rooted global peace) is not primarily a matter for the Bahá'ís of the world. However, relatively few as we are, the Bahá'í community has, as the House of Justice points out, a unique capacity; the world's peoples, bereft of moral leadership, are beginning to see in that community a resource for development and peace.

So, says, the House of Justice, there is clearly a need for a Bahá'í strategy. But what kind of strategy might this be? Our human and financial resources are relatively small and we are committed to non-involvement in partisan politics. What can we possibly do?

The answer given by the House of Justice is ingenious. We are to "lend spiritual impetus to the momentum which that grand attainment [the realization of the Lesser Peace] will generate":

One of its [the Bahá'í strategy] expressions should be the exertion of a kind of leadership, principally a moral leadership, by coherently, comprehensively and continually imparting our ideas for the advancement of civilization, and this through a voice that because of the diverse composition of our community could come to be regarded as representative of the aspirations of the peoples of the world.6

So that is the challenge facing the Bahá'í world. And a huge challenge it is for a community of around six million people, most of whom live in the world's economically poorer countries. The work of external affairs necessitates credible contact with governments, parliamentarians, non-governmental organizations, and the business community; not only contact, but partnership. If Bahá'í ideas and concepts and practices are to become part of the stock in trade of decision-making and activism across the planet, we need help to communicate the ideas and to put them into practice.

The Bahá'í community of the United Kingdom has been engaged in public relations work for very many years, but it is only recently that the National Spiritual Assembly (the community's elected governing body) has been able to commit considerable financial resources to the establishment of an Office of External Affairs, and to the employment of two full-time staff under the direction of the Secretary of the National Assembly, using the title "Secretary General of the Bahá'í Community of the UK". Here, then we see, as in a small number of other national Bahá'í communities, the beginnings of professionalization of the external affairs work, the establishment, so to speak, of a civil service, a "Foreign Ministry" (alongside the "Home Office" of the National Assembly's Secretariat), to pursue strategically and sustainably the building of contacts with all the sectors with which the Bahá'í community needs to work. And it is the building of close working contacts that will open the doors of official and citizen consciousness to the potency of the concepts to be found in the Bahá'í Writings.

There is much in the paragraph I quoted earlier from the External Affairs Strategy to be unpacked. In a few words the Universal House of Justice has set out a direction for the work of the Bahá'í community that has huge implications for the deployment of resources.

Before I examine in more detail some of the themes on which the external affairs work is focused, I would like to take a few moments to think about the nature of moral leadership. A "leader" in most people's eyes is one who is in charge or has control and power over others, power to enforce his (and it is usually a "he") will upon lesser mortals. I believe it was Mao Tse Tung who said something to the effect that power grows from the muzzle of a gun. That, in a shellcase, is the ultimate source of this kind of leadership: leadership by the exploitation of people's fear of dying or being hurt. Now, in most countries that claim to be civilized, the instruments of fear are usually kept quite well hidden. The legitimacy of the leadership is based on more or less democratic elections - although these are taken more seriously in some places than in others - and on the extent to which the leader is giving the led more or less what they want. And therein lies one of the paradoxes of this kind of leadership: the leader cannot generally take his people further than they are willing to be led. Of course, the instruments of fear and power re-emerge as soon as the leadership feels it or the order that supports it to be under threat, as we have seen in a number of countries in recent years. Ultimately, however, leadership by fear seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction.

So what kind of leadership is "moral leadership"? It requires us to stand the world on its head:

To meet the needs of humanity in this stage of maturity, this prevailing concept of leadership needs to be questioned and replaced with a concept that is centred on service. The goal of such new leadership is the empowerment of others to contribute to society, rather than the concentration of power over others. The primary characteristic of a moral leader should be the spirit of service: "he who serves the community most" rather than "he who dominates the community most".7

The moral leader, by this reasoning, is one who empowers individuals and societies to fulfil the two intimately inter-linked purposes of human existence: to work for personal transformation by searching for truth and by acquiring and applying knowledge, wisdom, virtues and spiritual qualities in daily life; and to bring about social transformation by promoting an ever-advancing civilization based on justice and love. As Anello comments:

The development of a just society, in which the common good is fostered through structures that facilitate collaboration and co-operation, and in which the benefits of individual initiative and creativity are safeguarded and encouraged, is indeed the challenging and highly complex task facing humanity.8

So the House of Justice is calling the Bahá'í community not only to convey certain ideas but to convey them in a way that itself models a new kind of leadership. We begin to understand that the leader is not one who holds power, but one who empowers, who releases the power that resides in individuals, groups and societies to choose and achieve noble goals. This mode of action itself models and stimulates the growth of a new kind of society.

I commented earlier that Bahá'í resources are limited. The Universal House of Justice, recognizing this, focuses the external affairs work of the Bahá'í community on just four themes: human rights, the status of women, global prosperity, and moral development. I say "just"; actually when one begins to consider what each of these comprises, almost the entire panoply of human development appears to be packed within them. Each of these themes -- all inextricably linked with each other -- is packed with opportunities for social and economic development.

Let me take but one example. Traditionally human rights and human development have been separate areas of work, as shown by the separation of the UN agencies which deal with them. However, the 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development states that development a human right. This declaration was strengthened by the Declaration of the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights, which refers to the right to development as an inalienable human right. Recently the UN Development Programme published a document9 linking human development and human rights.

Sustainable human development seeks to expand choices for all people - women, men and children, current and future generations - while protecting the natural systems on which all life depends. Moving away from a narrow, economy-centred approach to development, sustainable human development places people at the core, and views humans as both a means and an end of development. Thus sustainable human development aims to eliminate poverty, promote human dignity and rights, and provide equitable opportunities for all through good governance, thereby promoting the realization of all human rights - economic, social, cultural, civil and political...

Human rights and sustainable human development are inter-dependent and mutually reinforcing. Development is unsustainable where the rule of law and equity do not exist; where ethnic, religious or sexual discrimination are rampant; where there are restrictions on free speech, free association and the medial; or where large numbers of people live in abject and degrading poverty...

A critical dimension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is its linking of rights with responsibilities...

Human Rights and sustainable development are inextricably linked, complementary and multidimensional10

This, then, is the latest thinking of one UN agency, thinking which is also that of Rights & Humanity, an international NGO which has been promoting the linkage of rights and development. Clearly the traditional practices of monitoring human rights and hauling violators, individuals and state actors, before various tribunals to answer for their malfeasance, must continue. But the truly exciting area of work is at that point at which human rights and human development come together. I could go on to show how intimately human rights and the status of women are linked; or human rights and moral development. (The Bahá'í view - which might be characterized as "covenantal" - is that each individual on the planet is a moral trust of the whole human race and in particular of those who govern on our behalf; it is in this moral trust that inalienable human rights are based.) Anyway, I'm sure you take the point.

Clearly, then, these four themes are the loci of both external affairs work and social and economic development. How, then, do these two areas of Bahá'í activity reinforce each other?

I can identify three ways in which external affairs and social and economic development work should be able to reinforce each other in a virtuous circle or, better, a virtuous spiral.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, social and economic development activities in themselves influence processes towards world peace. By putting Bahá'í principles into action at the grassroots, whether within the Bahá'í community or in the wider community (perhaps in partnership with a UN agency or an NGO), Bahá'ís model the kinds of strategies, actions and outcomes that take a group of people in the direction advocated by the Bahá'í Writings. And, not only are those people who are engaged in processes of development through a Bahá'í-inspired or Bahá'í-led project learning to move in the right direction, but also the development workers and change agents who guide the projects learn in practice what the Bahá'í principles and concepts mean in the context of the project; they should, therefore, be better able both to apply those principles elsewhere and to help educate others in Bahá'í-inspired development processes. Furthermore, an important outcome of such projects is an increase in the capacity of the Bahá'í community to organize itself and to promote the underlying principles.

Secondly, having examples of what the Bahá'í principles that we are conveying through our external affairs work mean in practice boosts the credibility of the Bahá'í community as a source of reliable and useful information. Sometimes, external affairs representatives feel as if they are "dancing on hot air". Governments, development agencies, NGOs, and individual activists are generally focused on remedying in a practical way what they perceive as particular evils or lacks in some group or groups of people in one or more parts of the world. They can be impatient of things that lack a practical outcome. Only the Bahá'í community, as far as I can tell, is promoting a long-term, "multi-dimensional, integrated, dynamic and progressive"11 vision, based unequivocally on the root spiritual principle of the unity of the human race, throughout the planet, working with its own grassroots community, with partner NGOs, with government, with the UN. In this context, it is not the social and economic development work that is the prime focus, but the concepts and principles that underlie the work and that we are conveying to people. However, to the practically minded, something that is all concept and no practice is not very credible. So, in a purely pragmatic sense, being able to point to the work that Bahá'ís engaged in social & economic development word around the world - all in pursuance of the grand vision of Bahá'u'lláh - contributes hugely to the credibility of the Bahá'í community in its external affairs work. People want to know what the Bahá'í community is doing, not just what it is thinking.

Thirdly, the networks of people in which social & economic development Bahá'ís and external affairs Bahá'ís (if I may short-hand them in this way and who may not necessarily be different people) will increasingly overlap and reinforce each other. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of networking (and I'm sure I need not say that here) as a means of facilitating and advancing the work of both external affairs and social and economic development. The Universal House of Justice's External Affairs Strategy document puts forward "association with like-minded people and organizations" as one of the means of accomplishing our purpose in external affairs; it also points out that we must "engage like-minded non-Bahá'ís in our activities, inviting them to work with us and offering to work with them as appropriate."12 Such people may well quickly see the point of the ideas and concepts that the external affairs workers are putting forward; their appreciation of them will be greatly reinforced by consideration of the practical examples of social & economic development work undertaken by Bahá'ís world-wide.

My purpose is not to claim that social & economic development work is or should be an adjunct to external affairs work. On the contrary, I believe that each, guided by the Universal House of Justice and standing within its own sphere, can enormously boost the effectiveness of the other. When one comes to think of it, the entire Bahá'í project of "laying the foundations of a global society that can reflect of the oneness of human nature"13 is at root a giant, all-embracing human development project. The growth of the Bahá'í community in numbers, in density within given populations, in capacity to carry out ever greater tasks and projects, will inevitably make this an ever more influential force in world society.


1.  Universal House of Justice, External Affairs Strategy, 19 September 1994.
2.  From a letter, dated 8 October 1998, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom.
3.  External Affairs Strategy.
4.  ibid.
5.  ibid.
6.  ibid.
7.  Eloy Anello, "The Capabilities of Moral Leadership", in Iraj Ayman (ed.), A New Framework for Moral Education, 1995, Asr-I-Jadid Publisher.
8.  ibid.
9.  Integrating Human Rights with Sustainable Development, a UNDP Policy Document. January 1998.
10.  ibid, pp. 2-3.
11.  UN Working Group on the Right to Development (October 1995), cited in ibid. p. 3.
12.  External Affairs Strategy.
13.  Who is Writing the Future? Reflections on the Twentieth Century, a statement of the Bahá'í International Community Office of Public Information, February 1999.

International Environment Forum - Updated 13 August 1999