Tuesday, March 2, 2010

At the Heart of Social and Economic Development

Recently I attended the Baha’i Social and Economic Development Conference in Orlando, Florida. The theme was “Baha’i Inspired Development and the Growth Process: Partners in Transforming Society”. A co-worker and I had the honor of presenting the work of the Tahirih Justice Center and share the history and learnings of the organization to two very captive audiences. The conference itself offered an opportunity to learn from many others — young and old — involved with development/service work in their communities.

Among the questions explored in the conference was the meaning and source of “development”. Of course the term “development” is not new to anyone. Nations have been striving towards “development” for centuries. And who can deny that humanity has made astounding advances in scientific and social development in the last two centuries alone? Notwithstanding these benchmarks of progress, another fact rears its unpleasantness: a majority of the people inhabiting the planet have been left far, far behind. Ironically the gap between poor and rich is widening even as “development” has morphed into a global enterprise that seductively (and rather self-righteously) markets itself as targeting “the poorest of the poor”.

“Born in the wake of the chaos of the Second World War, ‘development’ became by far the largest and most ambitious collective undertaking on which the human race has ever embarked. Its humanitarian motivation matched its enormous material and technological investment. Fifty years later, while acknowledging the impressive benefits development has brought, the enterprise must be adjudged, by its own standards, a disheartening failure. Far from narrowing the gap between the well-being of the small segment of the human family who enjoy the benefits of modernity and the condition of the vast populations mired in hopeless want, the collective effort that began with such high hopes has seen the gap widen into an abyss.” (One Common Faith, 2.4)

Why has “development” failed? The question is intimately linked to another — what is the nature of true human/societal development? Is it purely material? The experiment of the last century was an exercise in applying the notion of development defined in purely material terms. Its dogma caused us to believe that human progress rested on material accumulation alone. We therefore pursued development projects that narrowly sought the economic exploitation of the environment, promoted the violent cultural intrusion of societies, and tolerated the kind of painful structural adjustment programs which the IMF and the World Bank implemented in developing countries at the expense of health, education, local infrastructure and the overall welfare of local peoples. Unembarrassed by both the immediate and devastatingly long-term tangible human suffering caused by the injustices of these policies, our world seemingly continues to blindly follow a credo fed by an insatiable, brutish appetite for material wealth.

The problem is not material wealth per se — rather it is the motivating impulse that drives the processes involved in the aim to improve the conditions of life. Consumer culture has operated under the conviction that those with means must become slaves to their senses and continuously satisfy their material wants and desires. With spending perceived as the pulse of healthy social and economic development “[s]elfishness becomes a prized commercial resource…Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride—even violence—acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value.” (One Common Faith, 2.3)

Part of the problem lies in a deep rooted perception of human nature as incorrigibly selfish. People, we are told, are fundamentally self-interested actors. By design the social and economic structures we have built under the various development regimes are meant to harness those impulses to fuel human progress on the path to “modernization”. Or so we’d like to believe — reality tells a different story, one that is hard to ignore: the disintegration of the family, mounting violence and crime, disappearance of community life, the degradation of the environment etc.

What if we painted a different picture of development? What would it look like? What if development was more than just a measure of income and material wealth? What if development also can start with interpersonal relationships, between two neighbors? What if we viewed true development as unlocking the potential of the individual and building their own capacity to identify problems and take social action within their own community? Does development really begin with material resources and capital? Or does it begin with collaboration and commitment to a broader vision born of a community of people who aspire for something better for themselves and future generations?

Slowly, we are learning that at the heart of how we understand development is a fundamentally different way of looking at human nature — each of us are intelligent beings with the capacity to overcome our baser qualities, with the capacity to do good, to serve, to give sacrificially for the benefit of the whole…the choice has always been ours. We have the agency, what has been missing for far too long is the will.

If we viewed human beings as having capacity to improve their own conditions would necessarily change the way the world “does development”. And here’s how: Currently, most development projects and programs are, by design, top-down in approach. It somehow presumes that pouring resources into a country will naturally lead to development—the project has only to be engineered and orchestrated in right way by the learned “experts”. It presumes that any failure to reach the intended results is due to missteps in the process of execution. If we are to throw out the underlying framework of the development model that is currently imposed on the peoples of the world, something else will have to take its place.

In order to move away from a model that too often regards the “poor” as “charity” or as “untapped human resources” that simply need training by the “experts” to be productive members of society, we need to embrace the idea that every individual is the agent or protagonist of their own learning and development, as human beings with capacity and the ability to build upon it. This idea firmly affirms that whole communities of people can develop the capacity to identify their needs and work together to address the challenges of their community, thereby becoming truly empowered, as they have taken ownership of their learning and growth in a manner most suitable to their environment and current development. We would perhaps start to look at “poverty” as not lack of material wealth, but as a life wasted due to lack of opportunities to achieve their highest potential to contribute to the welfare of the wider community.

So that leaves each of us — protagonists of change, agents of social transformation — at the heart of the matter.

Social and Economic Development can begin, and in reality, does begin with each of us. We all have the capacity to contribute to the betterment of our neighborhoods, the quality of our relationships with young people, the ability to serve each other. Through these grassroots initiatives, be they formal or informal, taking part in service or “social action” and working diligently towards these ends will release the potentialities of the human spirit in ways we have yet to fully realize.


  1. excellent post. one thing i would mention is amartya sen's observation that income has *instrumental* value as opposed to *intrinsic* value. and it actually does - it can serve to store the value we have of things and be a concrete demonstration of our priorities (or even conceptual framework).

    income and material resources, rather than being dismissed, should be recognized and appointed to their appropriate place. somehow, in the development endeavor, we have forgotten why income was actually important, and that it was meant to serve some other, higher purpose. it became shorthand for "welfare" since it was *instrumental* in achieving various aspects of protagonism, but now, it has displaced the things that have genuine value, and has become the goal.

    we abstracted away from true prosperity, and instead of an explicit conceptual framework grounded in universal values governing our affairs, we are subject to an implicit conceptual framework, governed by impulse.
    the means have become the ends and the ends, the means:

    wealth no longer serves to promote health, education and social integration, but rather, health, education and social capital are all valued in the development enterprise solely in their abilities to promote material accumulation.

  2. Well written! I believe that we are all are looking for ways to transform social reality and its amazing how its seen from different perspectives.

    I appreciate the idea of individuals being a protagonist within the economic system, usually people believe they are more or less being acted upon and its nice to rethink power relationships.

    On another note, I would love to get your thoughts on a project that Im working on (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=91804789535), its about development and charity and draws a lot of its inspiration from Prosperity of Humankind.

    Im glad I found your blog, keep it up.