Perspective: Spirituality in Development

Development, in the Bahá'í view, is an organic process in which "the spiritual is expressed and carried out in the material." Meaningful development requires balancing the seemingly antithetical processes of individual progress and social advancement, of globalization and decentralization, and of promoting universal standards and fostering cultural diversity. In our increasingly interdependent world, development efforts must be animated by universal values and guided by a vision of world community.

Local and national communities that prosper in such a future will do so because they acknowledge the spiritual dimension of human nature and make the moral, emotional, physical and intellectual development of the individual a central priority. They will guarantee freedom of religion and encourage the establishment of places of worship. These communities will promote respect for both rights and responsibilities, will foster the equality and partnership of women and men, and will protect and nurture families. They will promote beauty, natural and man-made, and will incorporate into their design principles of environmental preservation and rehabilitation. Guided by the concept of unity in diversity, they will support widespread participation in the affairs of society and will increasingly turn to leaders who are motivated by the desire to serve.

Bahá'ís are optimistic that such a future is inevitable and, indeed, is already beginning to emerge. They are also realistic, understanding that progress toward such a future will require an enormous amount of perseverance, sacrifice and change. The speed and cost of this progress will be determined largely by governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector, and organizations of civil society. All concerned must clearly understand what they are working for if they are to become constructive participants in the process.

To chart development progress, social and economic indicators are used by various actors, from United Nations agencies and governments to businesses and academicians. Indicators do not change reality, but they help shape the way we perceive, and serve to forge a common understanding of development.

Today, there are numerous efforts to make development indicators more reflective of what actually constitutes individual and community progress. Among the most notable of these is the Human Development Index, as calculated by the United Nations Development Programme in its annual Human Development Report.

The idea that spiritual values are critical to human advancement, long recognized by the great majority of humanity, is increasingly accepted by secular development specialists. The global action plans that came out of the major UN conferences of this decade have helped shift the dominant view of development from that of a top-down, technically and economically driven process to one in which people and communities increasingly define and take responsibility for their own advancement. And many of these plans explicitly take note of the importance of spiritual values. The idea of spiritually based indicators for development is accordingly timely.

Spiritually based indicators assess development progress as a function of the application of spiritual principles. At the heart of their conception is the understanding that human nature is fundamentally spiritual and that spiritual principles, which resonate with the human soul, provide an enormous motivational power for sacrifice and change. Therefore the people of the world will be much more inclined to support policies and programs that emerge from the development of indicators based on spiritual principles than they would programs based on a purely material conception of life. The use of these measures could help transform not only the vision but the actual practice of development, by helping to establish, clarify and prioritize goals, policies and programs.

The components of a spiritually based indicator would include a vision of a peaceful and united future; the selected principle(s) crucial to the realization of that future; the policy area addressed by the principle(s); and the goal toward which the indicator assesses progress. The indicator should be quantitatively or qualitatively measurable and verifiable, and adaptable within a wide diversity of contexts without violating the integrity of the principle(s) involved.

We suggest starting with five principles: 1) unity in diversity; 2) equity and justice; 3) equality of the sexes; 4) trustworthiness and moral leadership; and 5) independent investigation of truth. These five principles can then be applied to general policy areas to create spiritually based development indicators. For the purposes of discussion, we suggest beginning with five such policy areas: 1) economic development; 2) education; 3) environmental stewardship; 4) meeting basic needs in food, nutrition, health and shelter; and 5) governance and participation.

By juxtaposing these principles and policy areas, there are numerous ways in which spiritually based development indicators might be created. Take, for example, the application of the principle of unity in diversity to the policy area of education. In concrete terms, the principle can be expressed in many ways; one particularly relevant aspect is its connection to the concept of global consciousness.

Accordingly, one might measure the percentage of time - both in class and in after school programs - that is dedicated to subject matter or to other activities which foster global consciousness. Another approach might be a content analysis of textbooks to determine the percentage of space dedicated to this theme. Still another indicator might measure the prevalence of such subject matter in the curricula of teacher training institutes.

Another example that illustrates how such indicators can be created is found by applying the spiritual principles of equity and justice in the arena of economic policy. In this case, the goal would be to narrow the income gap between rich and poor nations. Already, of course, there are numerous measurements of the income gap among individual countries. But these fall short of examining progress that is made in reducing the gap. A more spiritually based approach would be to plot income relationships over time, to determine if the gap between the most and the least economically prosperous nations is being reduced. Another approach might weigh the economic benefits that accrue from trading opportunities that favor economically poorer nations.

The actual identification of goals and the construction of specific spiritually based indicators for development could be undertaken as a collaborative process. We propose that representatives of the world's religions be brought together, perhaps under the aegis of the World Bank, or another international development agency, to begin consulting on spiritual principles and their bearing on individual and collective progress. The initial aim would be to reach understanding on a limited number of spiritual principles that are shared universally and a set of priority policy areas in which they would be applied.

The ultimate aim of this initiative would be to place spiritual principles at the heart of development. As is now increasingly recognized, sustainable development is impossible without the proper recognition of the role that such principles play in individual and collective advancement. Developing indicators to measure and chart this progress is therefore not only timely but essential.

[Editor's note: The following is adapted from a paper, entitled "Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development," presented by the Bahá'í Faith at the World Faiths and Development Dialogue on 18-19 February 1998 in London.