25 July 2010

The Universal House of Justice's Vision for Global Action

I'd like to share some thoughts on the classical philosophical tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community; the local and the global. I think the Universal House of Justice has given the world a creative way of negotiating this dynamic. Often times, we hear people use the expression "Think Globally. Act Locally." It's an intriguing expression. But for me, it raises the question: why isn't it "Think Globally. Act Globally?" After all, wouldn't a global vision of social change require a global program of action? How can a global thought give rise to a local action?

Obviously there's a lot of problems with top-down remedies, especially when we're thinking about the need to forge a world order adequate to our global interdependence. Top down remedies generally involve outsiders coming into a community and dictating what changes should be made. Not only is it rude, arrogant, and disempowering. Top-down remedies can be really ineffective if they don't take into account the unique needs of a community. Forms of economic development in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia as they have been pursued by multinational corporations, governments, and international agencies since the colonial era provide a number of examples; mining projects that send all their profits either to outside investors or a local warlord; or transitioning agriculture from food production to inedible cash crops whose market-value can easily collapse, leaving farmers with neither money nor food.

Individuals, communities, and institutions need to be involved at the local level generating knowledge and putting into practice projects that fit their needs. But it’s important not to throw out the baby of global coordination with the bathwater of top-down remedies.

It seems to me, the Universal House of Justice has done a remarkable job wrestling with this dynamic. They provide leadership in developing a global vision for action. But that vision advances through the development of local capacities. All around the world in a great variety of settings, thousands upon thousands of people are engaged in raising their capacity for service. Whether it be through the courses of the Ruhi Institute, the junior youth program or other Bahá’í and Bahá’í-inspired projects, local communities are forging spaces to consult and take action on issues that matter to them. In one place that might mean countering the spiritual effects of crass consumerism. In another place, it might mean engaging others in a dialogue about malaria prevention. So on the one hand, there are these global programs replicated all over the world informed by a global vision and with an eye for global needs. And on the other hand, participation in these programs creates local spaces for communities to take charge of their own affairs.

The key is that the global aspect of these plans is that which pertains to building capacity, rather than the specific content of each line of action. A Colombian can’t identify the spiritual needs of a neighborhood in the Bronx. But Colombians can develop curricula that help people in the Bronx walk a path of service and gradually learn how to address their own neighborhood’s spiritual needs. Also, because programs are being implemented in a wide number of places, experience gained in one area can provide valuable learning for another community facing similar challenges. Children’s class teachers in many different communities may be struggling to involve parents in the spiritual education of their children. But teachers in one community may have success with a new approach. And the insights they gain can then flow through the channels of Bahá’í administration to other communities, so those other teachers can benefit from their experience.

Globally-connected systems can be employed to build capacity at the local level for addressing both global and local needs. For Bahá’ís this is no longer a hypothesis. It’s been a demonstrated reality for at least the past five years. Not only does this approach enable participants to “Think Globally. Act Locally.” It also helps them to “Think Locally. Act Globally.”

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