Regarding Poverty and Participation

In Brief: 
  • Those living in poverty must be included in decision-making processes not simply because it is the “right” thing to do, but because the progress of society as a whole depends on their full participation.
  • Expanding meaningful opportunities for participation also has intrinsic value as it respects the inherent worth and dignity of all peoples and provides an environment in which their experiences and perspectives can be heard.
  • The task of incorporating all people, regardless of material wealth, into the effort to advance civilization calls for the articulation of a vibrant and compelling vision of human prosperity at its widest and most inclusive.

The idea that every person has a role to play in shaping the processes and structures that impact their lives is now widely accepted and considered by many as a cornerstone of social action.

Poverty is a condition that arises from the injustices of society. The very structures that perpetuate poverty also perpetuate the lack of participation of the materially poor in decisions that affect their lives. Too often, those living in poverty are not treated as part of society; social norms and structures, legal mechanisms and economic policies develop in ways that, either explicitly or not, exclude them from full participation. The responsibility lies with society — its communities and social institutions — to make it possible for all people to contribute their energies and talents to the construction of a more just and equitable global community.

The expansion of opportunities for the materially poor to voice their perspectives on issues that affect their lives has been expressed in terms of both human rights and obligations. Equally important, though less acknowledged, is the reality that only by involving the people directly affected by decisions can the best ideas emerge and the greatest advances be made. Those living in poverty must be included in decision-making processes not simply because it is the “right” thing to do, but because if they are not, the progress of society as a whole — impacting rich and poor alike — will be hindered.

The erroneous belief that those with power and resources already possess everything needed for society to thrive undermines the meaningful participation of those who have traditionally been excluded and thwarts human development as a whole, by discounting a rich source of insights, knowledge, ideas and resources.

A key question, then, is whether efforts to involve the materially poor in decision-making are conceived in terms of their contribution to society as a whole, or whether their involvement is understood merely within the context of projects created by others — generally those with access to resources and power.

It is an unfortunate reality that participatory mechanisms designed for those living in poverty often take the form of pro forma consultations or largely symbolic “listening-sessions.” Participation must be substantive and creative if it is to further constructive social transformation. It must engage constituents in the full range of the decision-making process, from identifying challenges, devising solutions, and choosing approaches to determining implementation strategies and articulating criteria for evaluation. In particular, the more individuals are included in the early stages of the process, the more fully they can express their agency.

The present-day social order, in which materialism and exploitation have largely supplanted the organizing principles of justice and mutualism, exerts its influence on each one of us and shapes our understanding of ourselves and our role in society. The exclusion of individuals from relevant decision-making processes, the failure of society to consider their needs and aspirations, too often distorts their perceptions of their dignity and self-worth. Expanding meaningful opportunities for participation, then, has intrinsic value as it respects the inherent worth and dignity of marginalized peoples and provides an environment in which their experiences, perspectives, their hopes and fears can be heard.

Expanding the participation of those who have historically been excluded from decision-making not only increases the pool of intellectual resources, but can also foster the trust and mutual commitment needed for sustained, collective action. A diversity of opinions, on its own, however, does not provide a means to bridge differences or resolve social tensions. A unifying process of decision-making is needed — one which helps participants to formulate common goals, to manage collective resources, to win the good-will and support of all stakeholders, and to mobilize diverse talents and capacities.

Though much remains to be learned, certain features seem integral to such a process. Among these is the effort to identify and apply moral and social principles to the matter at hand. Many well-intentioned groups can formulate approaches to the problems before them, but such plans are valuable only to the degree that they can be translated into action. Because good intentions and good ideas will not suffice in the face of stretched budgets, meager resources, and contending visions of progress and well-being, agreement will need to be reached on the underlying principles.

Reaching a shared vision of action requires processes of collective inquiry and decision-making that focus on ascertaining facts and assessing circumstances, rather than on advancing competing claims and interests. In such an atmosphere, ideas that have been shared no longer “belong” to the individuals who expressed them, but become a resource to be adopted, modified or discarded by the group as a whole. And while individuals are free to express differing opinions and viewpoints in a candid and frank manner, interactions need to be dignified and guided by a shared search for the truth about a given situation.

Conventional models of disputation and debate, which exclude the masses of the world’s people, perpetuate patterns of conflict, and place inordinate emphasis on the concerns of a powerful few, have proven inadequate to the task of building a world in which all can thrive and prosper.

Building the capacity of the world’s peoples and social institutions to create a prosperous and just society will require a vast increase in knowledge. Rather than unquestioningly adopting “solutions” developed elsewhere, an emphasis on strengthening local capacity to generate, apply and diffuse knowledge can help to put into place an ongoing process of action and reflection. Such an approach encourages respect of the existing knowledge base of a community, raises the community’s confidence in its ability to devise, implement and assess solutions, and helps to systematize and expand local knowledge.

Every community possesses structures for decision-making and consensus building. To the extent that they are recognized and utilized by members of the community, these structures and modes of organization can provide a starting point for efforts to give a greater voice to the perspectives and concerns of the materially poor in decisions that affect their lives and the progress of the community.

The task of incorporating all people, regardless of material wealth, into the advancement of civilization calls for the articulation of a vibrant and compelling vision of human prosperity at its widest and most inclusive. Such a vision must address the need for harmony between varying aspects of development (cultural, technological, economic, social, moral, spiritual), and must give rise to a widely-shared sense of common purpose.

Approaching social progress in such a way requires a model of human relationships that coherently incorporates the pervasive and growing interdependence characterizing the peoples and nations of the world today. One such model can be found in the complexity and coordination that characterizes the human body, in which millions of cells, immeasurably diverse in form and function, collaborate to make life possible. Every cell plays a role in maintaining a healthy body and each is linked to a lifelong process of giving and receiving. The growing consciousness of a common humanity lying just beneath the surface is redefining our relationships with one another as individuals, communities, and nations.

While the idea that the peoples of the world constitute a single human family receives wide support at the level of theory, the vast majority of both personal interactions and social structures are still based in entrenched conceptions of race, nationality, tribe, and similar designations. Such affiliations will need — without in any way detracting from the rich diversity of ethnic origins, history, language and tradition — to be informed by a wider allegiance to a global civilization if concern for the prosperity of all is to become anything more than politically expedient rhetoric.

[Editor’s note: The following is adapted from the Bahá’í International Community’s recent contribution to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights regarding the participation of persons living in poverty. The full report can be read at ]