NGOs and Literacy (Meeting Basic Learning Needs: The Experience of Baha'i Communities)
The ability to read has been recognized as a fundamental human right in the Baha'i teachings since Bahá'u'lláh proclaimed his message of universal peace and brotherhood to the peoples of the world in the late nineteenth century. In this view, basic education should be universal and compulsory, boys and girls should follow the same curriculum and, if circumstances make it impossible for a family to educate both a boy and a girl child, the girl's education takes precedence.
These concepts were first applied by Baha'i communities in Iran. During the early years of this century, when no systematic overall plan of education existed in that country, Baha'is organized a widespread educational program for children, youth and adults. This effort resulted in major self-improvement among the Iranian Baha'is, including a remarkable level of literacy among both men and women. By the early 1970s, virtually all Baha'i women aged less than forty in Iran could read and write.
According to the Baha'i model of social and economic development, the driving force for literacy and other change-inducing activities emanates primarily from the natural stirrings at the grass roots. Desires for self-improvement are voiced through community consultations and take shape as plans in the deliberations of the local governing council. Plans are usually carried out by voluntary efforts of individuals. National governing councils nurture this process by alerting local communities to needs and resources, and by guiding and coordinating the resulting activities. Since 1983 the number of Baha'i development projects, most of which are small-scale basic education activities in developing countries, has increased from approximately 200 to over 1,400.
In 1989 the Universal House of Justice, the international Baha'i governing body, called upon each national and local Baha'i council (a network of 151 national and territorial and more than 18,000 local consultative bodies) to support International Literacy Year and address the objective of eliminating illiteracy from the worldwide Baha'i community. The Baha'i International Community has responded to this call by disseminating information on how Baha'i communities can become involved in International Literacy Year activities. At the Baha'i World Centre, agencies which monitor and support existing Baha'i literacy programmes are expanding their capacity to respond to requests for advice that will naturally accompany these greatly expanded literacy efforts.
Literacy efforts which grow out of a genuine grass roots yearning and respond to local needs have a remarkable power to transform communities. As examples, Baha'i literacy programmes in northeastern Zaire and among the Guaymi people in Panama merit special attention.
In northeastern Zaire, approximately 100 Baha'i learning centers, providing basic education for children, youth and adults, have been established during the past decade or so. Since malnutrition was a serious problem, Baha'i educators developed a literacy programme which included nutrition-related generating words to teach reading and stimulate animated discussion of village life, including possibilities for constructive social change. This approach has been used successfully and has led to the initiation of health agriculture and other projects.
In Panama, a group of Guaymi Baha'is have been trained to teach literacy in the native language of the Guaymi people, as part of a wider effort to preserve the language and culture of their people. In a remarkable collaborative effort, literacy instructors from the Ministry of Education, who had been impressed with the dedication and positive spirit of the Guaymi trainees, helped to develop a Guaymi language literacy curriculum which uses uplifting, empowering themes drawn from the Baha'i teachings in order to promote personal growth and social change. Volunteer Baha'i literacy instructors are now teaching the Guaymi language in many communities.
As new literacy curricula and approaches are developed by Baha'i educators and institutions, they will be shared with Baha'is and others throughout the world as appropriate. Through a vast expansion of present literacy activities sponsored by local and national Baha'i councils and through an ongoing dialogue with governmental agencies and other non-governmental organizations, the Baha'i International Community intends to make a significant contribution to the worldwide effort to forever banish illiteracy from the face of the planet.