Advancement and continued hurdles in the 25 years since “The Prosperity of Humankind”

Advancement and continued hurdles in the 25 years since “The Prosperity of Humankind”

Anniversary of seminal BIC statement offers opportunity for reflection on UN75

The Baha'i International Community released "The Prosperity of Humankind" on 3 March 1995 on the occasion of the United Nations World Summit for Social Development.
The Baha'i International Community released "The Prosperity of Humankind" on 3 March 1995 on the occasion of the United Nations World Summit for Social Development.
New York—3 March 2020

The concept of “people-centered development” came into its own at the United Nations’ World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen. Part of a series of global conferences in the 1990s, the summit reflected a newfound sense of optimism that, with the Cold War behind it, the international community could come together to understand and begin to address the real needs and aspirations of the peoples of the world. And the Baha’i International Community sought to contribute to this evolving consciousness with the release, on this day 25 years ago, of The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement exploring “human prosperity in the fullest sense of the term—an awakening to the possibilities of the spiritual and material well-being now brought within grasp.”

In the years since, many of the hopes articulated at the Summit have been realized. By many material measures, humanity is better off today than it was then. For instance, in the past few decades the global poverty rate has more than halved and the extreme poverty rate has fallen from over 35% to approximately 10%. Similar gains have been achieved in areas such as health, life expectancy, and education.

But despite these advances, the hopefulness and spirit of international collaboration ascendant in those times have largely eroded. There is mounting cynicism about the capacity of the international community to address global challenges, and various populations are turning inward and embracing the idea that the world’s problems can best be resolved by shutting others out. In a recent speech UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres identified one of the principal threats darkening humanity’s horizons as “deep and growing global mistrust.” Against the backdrop of the accomplishments of the past 25 years, why the change in outlook and tenor? And how can the 75th anniversary of the United Nations be used as an opportunity to reinvigorate the spirit of optimism and global solidarity?

Central here is the fact that key elements of human well-being have been consistently overlooked in the global development effort. The Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development notes that “our societies must respond more effectively to...material and spiritual needs.” Yet only half of this call has been systematically addressed in the intervening years. Humanity has done well to articulate material indicators of development, and even to achieve a number of them. But focusing only on that which is quantifiable has obscured the critical importance of factors related to higher aspects of the human spirit, such as the value of relationships, the quality of one’s character, and the coherence between principles and deeds.

The need to bring such factors to the center of the development discourse was outlined in The Prosperity of Humankind, which made clear that ideals require the force of spiritual commitment to cement them. The statement laid out an ambitious vision of humanity’s capacity to take charge of the course of its development, and addressed a set of principles and concepts indispensable to the task—from reimagining collective decision-making to rearranging economic priorities. It called for “unconditioned recognition of the oneness of humankind” and “a commitment to the establishment of justice as the organizing principle of society”. 

These ideals, easy to affirm at the level of principle, continue to represent a fundamental challenge to prevailing modes of social organization. They constitute not only desirable societal conditions, but profound spiritual truths with implications at both the individual and collective levels. If justice, international cooperation, consultation, and equitable economic structures are to be established and sustained, they must be grounded in a set of beliefs and attitudes around such principles as kindness, generosity, fair-mindedness, sacrifice, and trustworthiness. 

Translating such a vision into practice is the work of all those committed to the betterment of human lives around the globe. For its part, the worldwide Baha’i community draws hope for the future from the glimpses of new patterns of life that are already emerging in local communities around the world: from the emergence of gender equality to efforts toward peace and reconciliation, from the empowerment of youth to religion’s constructive role in society.

The challenges of the moment are sobering. Learning what structures, processes, values, and relationships are needed to overcome them is the work facing humanity at this 75th anniversary of the United Nations and for years to come. But as The Prosperity of Humankind noted, “the greatest error that the world’s leadership could make … would be to allow the crisis to cast doubt on the ultimate outcome of the process that is occurring”: 

A world is passing away and a new one is struggling to be born. The habits, attitudes, and institutions that have accumulated over the centuries are being subjected to tests that are as necessary to human development as they are inescapable. What is required of the peoples of the world is a measure of faith and resolve to match the enormous energies with which the Creator of all things has endowed this spiritual springtime of the race.