Social Welfare and Social Development
The Baha'i International Community is most appreciative of this opportunity to participate in the Third Asian and Pacific Ministerial Conference on Social Welfare and Social Development. The agenda for this meeting is broad and challenging, touching on many areas of keen interest on our part. We would like to address in particular the agenda item "Social effects of contemporary development," and the related critical issues of "distribution and the alleviation of poverty," and the "concerns of specific population groups."
It may be useful to touch on some aims and tenets relevant to the subject of social development and social welfare to provide a framework for our viewpoint. The Baha'i teachings espouse the fundamental unity of mankind and the need for this reality to be manifested through the actions and attitudes of all peoples, based on a common spiritual commitment. On this basis, Baha'is see it as a basic objective both individually and collectively to carry forward an ever advancing civilization. Baha'i communities, which are very numerous in Asia and the Pacific, are working towards the realization of principles such as the elimination of all forms of prejudice, the equality of men and women, and universal compulsory education.
Baha'i community life aims at providing an environment which promotes both inner and outer development through motivating people of all backgrounds to implement such spiritual and social principles. Popular participation is thus an inherent element and can be illustrated with many examples of grass roots efforts in the areas of literacy, agriculture, health, child education, advancement of women, youth projects, and so on. It is our experience that social development arises spontaneously where groups of people share a strong sense of purpose, supported by a common system of human values based on a belief in the oneness of the human race and the immense potential of human efforts.
An important matter addressed by this Conference is "distribution and the alleviation of poverty." The distribution system of social services has in many countries contributed substantially to impressive improvements in areas such as primary education and primary health care. Its contribution to the reduction of overall poverty needs, however, to be considerably increased. In the Baha'i view the inordinate disparity between rich and poor is both a source of acute suffering and a factor that keeps human society in a state of instability. There is thus a necessity to eliminate the extremes of wealth and poverty for spiritual and moral, as well as social reasons, and the solution therefore calls for a combined approach, involving those dimensions of the human reality. Fundamental, we believe, is the creation, through education, of a new universal attitude which makes degrading poverty unacceptable in principle, in order to induce the will to discover and implement practical remedies on the part of all parties concerned. This attitude should be supplemented by efforts to stimulate participation of local people and organizations to articulate needs and effectively utilize services provided, on a basis of self-reliance.
The effect of contemporary development is an issue of particular concern with regard to a number of subgroups in society. This is due to their vulnerability to the negative effects of change and to their potentially important roles in society, given proper support. Although we are not able to address them all within the scope of this statement, our concern is nonetheless non-exclusive. The Baha'i teachings emphasize the need to support and promote, in particular, minority groups, women, youth, children, and, generally, the weak and disadvantaged segments of society. All levels of society must develop an appreciation of and concern for these masses, who represent the majority of the poor, and a recognition of their status as equals, deserving of a decent living standard and the right to develop. There is also in this respect a need for change of attitude and for participatory efforts to facilitate the realization of genuine social and economic development.
In addressing specific population groups we would like to encourage the Conference to focus also on the situation of minority ethnic and tribal groups in the region. These groups, which are commonly isolated due to social, cultural, linguistic and geographic factors are deserving of particular attention. They are often those least able to benefit from large scale advances in development and very exposed to its ill effects, such as some aspects of urban migration and the erosion of traditional culture. In the Baha'i view: "..Every organized community...should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class or nation within it." Thus, indigenous populations must have the fundamental right and opportunity to develop, and to take pride in their own identity, culture and language. To make this possible it is essential that they be given equitable, and if necessary preferential access to the resources of society and that the distribution system be oriented towards achieving this objective.
The crucial need to integrate women fully in the process of development and as an active force at all levels of society is now widely acclaimed. Some progress has been made, but it must be accelerated, with the help of education and widespread attitude change ranging from policy makers and planners to the people at large. According to the Baha'i view, women are the first educators of humanity in their role as mothers, and thus girls should be given preference in receiving education. Since it is through educated mothers that the benefits of knowledge can most effectively and rapidly be diffused throughout society, this sense of educational priority for women should, however, be founded not only in the family but it should also be seriously considered for inclusion in the national policy. The denial of female equality perpetrates an injustice against one-half of the population and promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the work place and to society at large, thereby creating an obstacle to progressive and peaceful development. There are no grounds, moral, practical, or biological, upon which such denial can be justified.
Children are not only the most vulnerable but also often the most disadvantaged of the population groups. Since, however, it is the children who hold the promise for the future of society they should be given preferential access to the necessary resources for sound childhood development. A crucial service to be provided in this context is universal education, for ignorance is not only a contributing factor to destitution but also indisputably the principal reason for the decline and fall of peoples and the perpetuation of prejudice. Education should include broad academic training as well as the acquisition of skills enabling everyone to earn a livelihood. It is clear however that formal, scholastic education is not, by itself, capable of ridding society of hatred, prejudice, greed and oppression. The acquisition and exercise of spiritual qualities -- qualities such as mercy, tolerance, honesty, trustworthiness, unselfishness, compassion and love -- should therefore also be part of educational programs in order to achieve lasting social welfare and social development.
In summary we wish to re-emphasize the need for widespread development of attitudes and values which promote a sense of unity, popular participation and a will to equity. Further, to attain sound and sustainable social welfare and social development, it is crucial that the principle of service to others is inculcated. In the Baha'i view such service is considered the highest expression of the human spirit and a major objective of life. To quote: "The honor and distinction of the individual consists in this, that he among all the world's multitudes should become a source of social good....We should continually be establishing new bases for human happiness and creating and promoting new instrumentalities toward this end. Supreme happiness is man's...if he urges on the steed of high endeavor in the arena of civilization and justice." (From the Baha'i writings)