Unity and Consultation: Foundations of Sustainable Development


Unity and Consultation:
Foundations of Sustainable Development

A Statement of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States

As the twentieth century draws to a close, the world community is experiencing startling changes that are profoundly altering the character of society. These processes of change presage a fundamental turning point in the history of the human race. Unparalleled scientific and technological advances have contracted the world into a mere neighborhood in which people are instantly aware of each other's affairs. Although these advances portend a great surge forward in the social evolution of the planet, humanity is now confronted with a series of interrelated problems that threaten both the fabric of civilized life and the natural world itself.

The resolution of these problems--crushing poverty amidst vast sections of the developing world, oppression of women and minority groups, intractable political, religious, and ethnic conflicts, and disruption of global ecosystems, among others--will require unprecedented levels of cooperation and coordination that surpass anything in humanity's collective experience.

The UNCED process marked the beginning of a vital enterprise of partnership among governments, international organizations, and ordinary citizens. Both the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21 acknowledge the indispensable role of open dialogue, and "broad public participation in decision-making."1 Indeed, the challenging objectives associated with sustainable development cannot conceivably be met without the involvement of representatives from all segments of the human family and all departments of human life--political, social, scientific, economic, and religious. It is through the interaction of people from all cultures, races, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds that creative approaches to sustainable development will be found. And it is only through such interaction that the prejudices, misconceptions, and suspicions that currently govern human relationships can be overcome.

Patterns of sustainable development, however, will not emerge without systematic changes in the underlying ethos of societal institutions, and this in turn requires changes in the values and attitudes of individuals. Recognition of the fundamental interdependence between human life and the biosphere is only the first step toward creating this new consciousness. An ecologically sustainable civilization must cover the full range of human activities, from the social and political realm to the everyday relationships in our cultural, spiritual, economic, and community lives. It involves both an internal and external reordering, and such a reordering can only occur when the human heart is transformed.

The path toward sustainable development can only be built upon the deep comprehension of humanity's spiritual reality--a reality that lies at the very essence of human beings. It is our spiritual nature that is the source of human qualities that engender unity and harmony, that lead to insight and understanding, and that make possible collaborative undertakings. Such qualities--compassion, forbearance, trustworthiness, courage, humility, cooperation and willingness to sacrifice for the common good--form the invisible yet essential foundations of human society.

In considering the connection between the spiritual dimension of human existence and sustainable development, it is helpful to recall how the world's great religious systems have guided humanity in the past. The moral code of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule (that we should treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated)--both of which find their expression in nearly every religious tradition--serve both as ethical guidelines and a summons to spiritual achievement. They have permeated human consciousness and regenerated cultures everywhere. Even for the non-believer, the value of such teachings is evident.

Today, our understanding of spirituality must embrace not only personal development and growth, but also the collective progress of humanity as a whole. More than a century ago, Bahá'u'llah, Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, declared, "The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established." So long as disunity, antagonism and provincialism characterize the social, political and economic relations within and among nations, sustainable development will remain an unachievable goal. Only upon a foundation of genuine unity, harmony and understanding among the diverse peoples and nations of the world, can a sustainable global society be erected.

The chief vehicle for bringing about such unity is the principle of the oneness of humankind. In appealing to humanity to accept the central truth of its oneness, Bahá'u'llah urges, "...regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch." "The earth is but one country," he proclaims, "and mankind its citizens." Although this principle of the oneness of the human family certainly implies a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and goodwill among all peoples, it suggests something much deeper: "...an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced."2

The concept of unity that underpins the Bahá'í vision of a peaceful and sustainable world is not a unity based on uniformity, but rather a unity which embraces diversity. Unity is the instrument whereby true justice can be established, whereby equality of opportunity and privilege can exist for women and men throughout the planet. The concept of the oneness of humankind is thus a statement of principle, and a basis for social organization. It implies the abandonment of prejudices--whether racial, ethnic, national, or religious--and the establishment of institutions and policies that safeguard the dignity and well-being of all peoples.

The acceptance of this principle will provide the ethical and motivational imperative for each and every member of the human race to assume responsibility for the fate of the planet. Without such a universal ethical imperative, without touching the human spirit, the peoples of the world are unlikely to become active, constructive participants in the global process of sustainable development. The enormous financial, technical, human, and moral resources necessary for creating a sustainable society will only be released when this ethic of our fundamental oneness is fully embraced. Accordingly, the concept of world citizenship, with its implications of brotherhood and true creative fellowship among the peoples of the earth, should be universally proclaimed, taught in schools, and constantly asserted in every part of the globe.

A key challenge raised by the UNCED process is the development of new collaborative efforts among government institutions, business associations, non-governmental organizations, and citizens groups representing the perspectives of women, indigenous peoples, and youth.3 Because environmental and development problems scale from the local to the global level, such partnerships are essential if innovative technical and social approaches to sustainable development are to emerge. New patterns of interaction and participation, especially among individuals and groups that have been historically excluded from decision-making, can open the door to new possibilities and novel solutions. Moreover, the creation of new patterns of participation can fundamentally alter the way power flows within and among communities, and thus can be an effective means for devolving authority to the most appropriate level of society.

To ensure that these collaborative undertakings are successful, however, new modalities of decision-making will be needed. Given the extraordinary challenges and complexities associated with sustainable development, it is unlikely that traditional adversarial approaches to decision-making will be adequate to the task. Even the most mature democratic systems suffer from political paralysis, with competing parties or groups claiming that they can solve the difficult problems of the day better than their opponents. Clearly, cooperative and fully inclusive approaches to decision-making must become an integral feature of the sustainable development process.

In this regard, the Bahá'í community offers its own administrative system as a model for study. Bahá'ís attach great importance to cooperative action and assign organizational responsibility for community affairs to freely elected councils at the local, national, and international levels. This hierarchy devolves decision-making to the lowest level practicable--thereby providing a unique vehicle for grassroots democracy--while at the same time providing a mechanism of coordination and authority that makes cooperation possible on a global scale.

The administrative bodies of the Bahá'í Faith at all levels use a distinctive method of non-adversarial decision-making, known as "consultation." The principles of consultation were laid down in Bahá'u'llah's writings, and as a procedure for building consensus, have the potential for wide application. Indeed, Bahá'ís have found them to be useful in virtually any arena where group decision-making and cooperation is required. In essence, consultation seeks to build consensus in a manner that unites various constituencies instead of dividing them. It encourages diversity of opinion and acts to control the struggle for power that is otherwise so common in traditional decision-making systems. Bahá'u'llah states that consultation is a "lamp of guidance" that "bestows greater awareness and transmutes conjecture into certitude."

Bahá'í consultation is based on the following principles:
 Information should be gathered from the widest possible range of sources, seeking a diversity of points of view. This may involve seeking the views of technical specialists or making a special effort to consider the views of community members from disparate backgrounds.
  During discussion, participants must make every effort to be as frank and candid as possible, while maintaining a courteous interest in the views of others. Confrontation, blanket ultimatums and prejudicial statements are to be avoided. Indeed, an atmosphere that cultivates openness, objectivity, and humility is viewed as a prerequisite for successful consultation.
  When an idea is put forth, it becomes at once the property of the group. Although this notion sounds simple, it is perhaps the most profound principle of consultation. For in this rule, all ideas cease to be the property of any individual, sub-group, or constituency. When followed, this principle encourages those ideas that spring forth from a sincere desire to serve, as opposed to ideas that emanate from a desire for personal aggrandizement or constituency building.
  The group strives for unanimity, but a majority vote can be taken to bring about a conclusion and make the decision. An important aspect of this principle is the understanding that once a decision is made, it is incumbent on the entire group to act on it with unity--regardless of how many supported the measure.

In this sense, there can be no "minority" report or "position of the opposition" in consultation. Rather, Bahá'ís believe that if a decision is wrong, it will become evident in its implementation--but only if the decision-making group and, indeed, the community at large, support it wholeheartedly. This commitment to unity ensures that if a decision or a project fails, the problem lies in the idea itself, and not in the lack of support from the community or the obstinate actions of opponents.

These consultative principles have been an integral component of Bahá'í social and economic development activities throughout the world. Consultation has been both a vehicle for empowering women and minorities in their local communities, and for conceiving and implementing creative solutions to difficult problems. It is an indispensable tool for effecting meaningful change where unproductive habits have impeded progress. In essence, consultation involves a set of "process skills" that improve the quality and impact of group decision-making.

As governments, NGOs, grassroots organizations, and individual citizens explore new ways to work together and develop new strategies for promoting sustainable development, the Bahá'í community would be pleased to share its experiences and engage in further dialogue. As a global community encompassing the diversity of the human race, the Bahá'í community is deeply committed to the vision of a sustainable world--"a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life."4

National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, 1994

Agenda 21, Chapter 23.
2  Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'llah, 2nd ed. (Willmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 43.
3  See Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Principles 19-22.
4  Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'llah, p. 43.


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Last updated 4 January 2006