Annual conference on development for the Americas aims at encouraging non-professionals

ORLANDO, Florida - Over the last six years, the Bahá'í Conference on Social and Economic Development for the Americas has established itself as an event where non-professionals from throughout the Americas can come to learn what it really takes to launch and sustain a grassroots-based, small-scale development project.

In this regard, the three-day conference reflects the degree to which Bahá'í communities around the world have become involved in such projects and, more specifically, the degree to which the idea of social and economic development has engaged the hearts and minds of many Bahá'ís.

For the past three years, the conference has attracted more than 1,000 participants. Most are Bahá'ís and the majority come from Canada and the United States.

"This is not a professional or a technical conference," said Pierre Beemans, a vice president at the Canadian-based International Development Research Centre who was a featured speaker here. "That is not to belittle it. Many of these people here are from mainstream America. Yet many of them are involved in local community development initiatives, such as local schools, local health delivery programs, or local day care centers.

"And that is the level at which societal change has to take place," Dr. Beemans continued. "Lasting, sustainable changes happen when local, ordinary people make a commitment to the community."

The idea of encouraging people from all walks of life to participate in community-based development projects has become a main and continuing theme of the conferences held here. The conference is organized by the Rabbani Charitable Trust, a private, non-profit foundation based here. It was established by Bahá'ís in 1991 with the aim of promoting "the spiritual and social well-being of the entire human race," the conferences consciously seek to "uplift the spirit of individuals and motivate them to work in their communities," said Benjamin Levy, who serves on the Trust's five-member board.

"The objective is to enable those people who come to advance their own knowledge about development, so they can go back and apply what they have learned to stimulate and initiate projects, particularly at the grassroots level," said Mr. Levy, who has served as program director for the conferences over the last six years. "To this end, we try to make these meetings a learning process where everybody is a teacher and everybody is a learner."

Each year, the main conference, which always takes place over a weekend, is preceded by a smaller seminar for full-time development specialists. The full-time specialists, who are mostly Bahá'ís, come for in-depth consultations about development theory and practice and then often stay on as resource people for the weekend conference. Taken together, the two segments last about five days and provide an opportunity for a tremendous amount of networking and interchange, drawing Bahá'í development specialists from all over North, Central and South America.

This year, for example, there were 1,229 registered participants; 1,083 came from Canada and the USA. All totaled, however, participants came from 39 countries - representing virtually every nation in the Americas.

Presentations were made this year on more than 21 projects, which ranged in type and size from a 10-year-old, 1,200-student university in Chile to a project started two years ago in the Toronto, Canada, suburb of Markham by six women to promote the discussion of women's equality.

"From a networking point of view, the Conference is extremely successful," said Duncan Hanks, a Canadian development specialist who is currently working in Bolivia and who has attended the Orlando Conference four years running. "The level of the discussion is extremely high."

Conference participants here certainly speak of a desire to commit themselves to making changes at the local level.

Jim Ferguson, a physician's assistant from Michigan, USA, came to the Florida meeting to gain further insight and inspiration. In 1994 and 1995, he volunteered at a Bahá'í-sponsored health project in Guyana, spending about a month each visit.

"I am not a professional in the arena of social and economic development," said Mr. Ferguson. "But being in the health care field, I am interested in applying my skills to help people, especially overseas, in developing countries. Many of the people that are here have firsthand experience with development projects, but there are many that do not - and they are here to learn how to get involved."