Contributing to an Ever-Advancing Civilization: The Baha'i International Community and the United Nations


Contributing to an Ever-Advancing Civilization: The Baha'i International Community and the United Nations

Third Nishan Forum on World Civilizations. Shandong University

Jinan, China—22 May 2014

The Baha’i International Community is an international non-governmental organization that has been active at the United Nations and other international fora for over 60 years. The Baha’i community’s association with the United Nations dates back to the League of Nations and has its roots in the global vision that animates the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’is understand the progress of humanity as a global enterprise whose purpose is to bring prosperity to all peoples, an enterprise that must pursue its aim in the context of an emerging world civilization.

“All human beings,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, “have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.” Thus, every person, every community and every nation have been vested with an obligation to play their part in building a peaceful and prosperous global society. The goals and aspirations of the UN Charter, so timelessly articulated by its authors including the eminent Chinese scholar and diplomat Cheng Peng Chun, boldly reaffirmed humanity’s faith in the dignity of every human being and in the equal rights of women and men, and those of nations large and small. It further committed to international cooperation to promote the social progress of all people. 

The United Nations has a long history of engagement with organizations of civil society. Today, nearly 4000 non-governmental organizations are formally associated with the United Nations through its Economic and Social Council—they represent the concerns and voices of a veritable cross section of humanity as well as perspectives drawn from various faiths and belief systems. This association continues to inform and shape the discussions and discourse within the UN community. In recent years, for example, various UN agencies have begun to reflect more consciously and systematically on their relationships with faith-based organizations, recognizing the many contributions of such organizations in various fields of endeavor as well as the defining role that values, ethics and beliefs play in the lives of people around the world.

From the moment of its accreditation, the Baha’i International Community began to play an energetic role in United Nations’ affairs. “Be anxiously concerned,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh, “with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” Throughout its nearly 70 years of association with the United Nations, the Baha’i International Community, often working in collaboration with UN agencies and other NGOs, has worked in many different areas in the fields of social and sustainable development including in particular, the equality of women and men, the protection of the girl child, the protection of vulnerable and marginalized populations, and the advancement of a culture of discourse and collective deliberation, among others. At the world conferences of the 1990s, Baha’is actively contributed their vision and experience—at the World Conference on Education for All (Thailand), the World Summit for Children (New York), the UN Conference on the Environment (Rio de Janeiro), the International Conference on Population (Cairo), the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen) and the particularly vibrant Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Guiding these contributions has been a steady effort to apply intelligently and thoughtfully ethical and moral principles to the resolution of global challenges, and a steady striving for coherence between the material and moral dimensions of human life. 

It is important to note that these contributions and ideas are more than theory or aspiration. While they are guided by the Writings of the Baha’i Faith, they are equally informed by and intimately linked with the efforts of countless individuals and communities around the world working towards this vision of ethical and material advancement. We believe that every member of the human family, has not only the right to benefit from a prosperous civilization but an obligation to contribute towards its construction. In this area, close parallels can be seen with the Confucian ethic of responsibility and principles central to it, such as the idea that human beings exist in a web of relationships and not simply as isolated individuals, that social well-being requires trust and reciprocity and not merely a balance of adversarial relationships, and that human beings’ own flourishing requires them to exert themselves for the betterment of others.

As a global community, then, Baha’is are consciously striving to learn how populations of every kind and background can develop the capacity to take charge of their material, intellectual, social and moral development. In this way, human progress becomes increasingly representative of the aspirations and talents of mankind as a whole, and less a process carried out by one group on behalf of another.

Local efforts to improve the well-being of individual neighborhoods, villages and communities carried out by Baha’is and their like-minded collaborators provide key grounding and insight for the Baha’i International Community’s work at the United Nations. Such efforts involve constant effort to understand and translate moral principles of the Baha’i Faith into concrete action. The aim is not indoctrination, rather the raising up of individuals and communities capable of generating and applying new knowledge—as equal participants contributing to the building of a new civilization. It involves patience, understanding, flexibility, wisdom and humility as individuals and communities encounter and work through the deep-rooted and challenging issues before them. Let us take the example of corruption afflicting efforts at just and effective governance and administration at all levels. Not only does corruption dampen economic growth and reduce the utility of government services, it is antithetical to social well-being; it breeds distrust, resentment and hostility; it undermines solidarity and collective action.  How can this be addressed? How can the roots of corruption be reduced?  How can the capacity for moral behavior be developed in individuals, communities and the social and governing institutions of society?

One approach being pursued by Baha’is and their like-minded collaborators in this regard is classes for the moral and spiritual education of young people. These classes seek to equip children with the moral framework needed to navigate the many ethical choices they will face in life. The classes also aim to develop in youth a strong sense of purpose and instill in them the ideals needed to support a healthy and prosperous society. The curriculum seeks to help young people realize and develop their spiritual capacities, such as capacities of the intellect and of rational thought, the capacity to love, and the capacity to initiate and sustain action for the betterment of society, to name a few. These classes are initiated and led by local residents working with young people in their own neighborhood or village, thereby strengthening social bonds and ties of association at the local level. Such community based-efforts are the practical expressions of moral and spiritual principles, which bear on human interactions and collective life at all levels of society. Inevitably, efforts to express moral principles in a social context will raise further questions for communities: What, for example, is the optimal relationship between relatively informal community-based children’s classes and government-sponsored education systems? How are ethical and moral convictions about personal conduct and conscience operationalized in complex systems and bureaucracies? Raising and exploring such questions with others—questions arising from practice—represents another facet of the Baha’i International Community’s participation in the prevalent discourses on human progress and prosperity.  

The Baha’i International Community contributes to discourses at the international level both in terms of the ideas and perspectives that it puts forward and in terms of its efforts to advance a more constructive culture of discourse and deliberation.  By discourse I am referring to the expression of our attitudes, values, and understanding of ourselves and our material, social, and spiritual reality; I am referring to the manner in which we organize our knowledge and ideas; indeed, I am referring to a crucial means by which culture is shaped and developed. As we meet here near the birthplace of Confucius, it is fitting to quote briefly from the Analects:

“A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”  — Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7 

Confucius believed that social disorder stemmed from the failure to perceive, to understand and deal with reality. The Baha’i International Community views the principles of the Baha’i Faith as essential resources for understanding and dealing with the challenges facing communities around the world. Similarly, it sees the efforts of communities trying to operationalize those principles in local settings as important models which can be explored and assessed by all. We see ourselves as part of a discourse among the community of nations and we seek to contribute to this discourse by offering new ways of approaching familiar problems, by re-framing the way that certain problems are understood, be identifying assumptions and mental models underlying the understanding of reality and by drawing on insights from the fields of science as well as religion. We do so in a mode of learning, knowing that no one can lay claim to perfect understanding or complete knowledge. Through practice and through discourse, our understanding advances and is continually refined.

Yet it is not only the content of the discourse that matters, it is also the culture and spirit in which it unfolds. We have observed over the years of engaging with the United Nations community a culture of discourse often characterized by adversarial and positional debates, which are not conducive to meaningful collaboration. Recognizing the importance of process, our Office has sought to foster new modes constructive inquiry and of patterns of interaction which allow the insights and perspectives of participants to emerge and contribute to the generation of new knowledge. To offer a concrete example, over the past several years the UN community has been working to create a new framework for global development—a framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals. In light of the complexity of the issues involved in such an undertaking and the diversity of participants in this conversation, we sought to create a neutral and informal space a to facilitate a conversation in which the UN community—its agencies, Member States, and NGOs—could freely explore and deliberate about development issues of common concern. 

I hope that through this brief presentation about the Baha’i International Community I have been able to convey the Baha’i perspective that the betterment of humanity is indeed a global enterprise and one which will require the participation of the masses of humanity rather than a small group of actors working on behalf of the disenfranchised. “Every nation and every group,” the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith recently wrote, “indeed, every individual will, to a greater or lesser degree, contribute to the emergence of the world civilization towards which humanity is irresistibly moving.”

The work of the Baha’i International Community can be understood as seeking to facilitate, at the international level and particularly within the context of the UN, an ongoing conversation about the requirements of a world civilization progressing in all aspects of its individual and collective life. This is a conversation that rightfully belongs to all of humanity, and the Baha’i International Community is working to bring ever-growing numbers within its fold.