Stirring Up the Grass Roots:
Investigation for Community Development
Paper presented at the 3rd Conference of the International
Environment Forum, organized jointly with
the Bahá'í Agency for Social and Economic Development - United Kingdom (BASED-UK)
15-18 August 1999, Sidcot, United Kingdom
[This paper is as presented at the Conference, and has not been subject to editorial review by the IEF]
Progress in the development field will depend largely on natural stirrings of the grassroots and it should receive its driving force from those sources rather than from an imposition of plans and programmes from the top. (Universal House of Justice, 1983)
This paper explores some aspects of the Baha'i approach to social and economic development based on the experience of the Baha'i communities in Ghana. It explores these experiences in light of the Holy Writings and guidance of the Universal House of Justice related to social and economic development. The paper also considers the diverse stages in which communities appear poised to attain higher levels of capacity in their efforts for improved progress. The paper explores different approaches to building capacity for community development with particular reference to the literacy campaign in Ghana.
The paper is divided into three sections. The first section reviews some of the elements considered for social and economic development activities in Baha'i communities. The second section describes two Ghanaian community case studies. The final section is a reflection on the lessons learned from the cases and the experience gained in using the literacy for empowerment methodology in Ghana.
The paper was motivated by a desire to consider more carefully how qualitative research can assist Baha'i communities gain higher levels of capacity for carrying out their own activities in the field of social and economic development.
In a letter addressed to the Baha'is of the World, the Universal House of Justice, the Baha'i world-governing body, points to several requisites on which socio-economic development should begin.
The steps to be taken must necessarily begin in the Baha'i community itself, with the friends endeavouring, through their application of spiritual principles, their rectitude of conduct and the practice of the art of consultation, to uplift themselves and thus become self sufficient and self reliant. Moreover, these exertions will conduce to the preservation of human honour, so desired by Baha'u'llah. In the process and as a consequence, the friends will undoubtedly extend the benefits of their efforts to society as a whole, until all mankind achieves the progress intended by the Lord of Age. (20 October, 1983)
This passage describes integral elements of the development process for Baha'i communities to consider. The Baha'i community efforts and services will gradually extend to the greater society as a whole. The elements of these 'grassroots' stirrings are as follows:
• begin in the community itself
• involve: the application of spiritual principles
• rectitude of conduct
• the practice of the art of consultation
These elements presuppose a basic level of collective engagement within the community. The Baha'i community may already be working together in their feasts, holy days and Local Spiritual Assembly Meetings. The development process requires that the Baha'i community come together too discuss issues and consult on solutions. For some Baha'i communities simply working and gathering together is a challenge.
The Universal House of Justice again points out that coming together is not enough:
The principle remains, however, that the spiritual precedes the material. First comes the illumination of hearts and minds by the Revelation of Baha'u'llah and then the grassroots stirrings of the believers within to apply these teachings to the daily life of their community. Such stirrings can be fostered, encouraged and assisted by the national and continental institutions of the Faith, but without them any activities introduced from above might well prove abortive.1
The Baha'i community must be illumined and inspired by the Revelation of Baha'u'llah. This stage presupposes that there has been access to the Holy Writings of Baha'u'llah and for some communities this presents another challenge. There are Baha'i communities with differing degrees of access to the Holy Writings due to: lack of books in both local language and English, and/ or high levels of illiteracy. Furthermore, there are instances where communities are isolated and there is little contact with Baha'is who can help deepen the community.
This appears to be where the human resource development programs such as the institute programme, study circles and other Baha'i deepening programs prove most essential. But having direct access to the Holy Word will also depend on a basic level of literacy being attained in Baha'i communities; this is where the Baha'i literacy campaign is playing a role. Finally, with the distribution of books and access to materials in local languages Baha'i communities which still rely on local languages may begin to have higher levels of access to Baha'u'llah's revelation.
As Baha'i communities are inspired, gather momentum to consult and work together, they build greater capacities to 'apply the principles' and 'learn together' establishing a 'pattern of change' at all levels of society.
Central to the capacity of Baha'i communities to lead a process of transformation is the ability of its members and institutions to apply the Revelation of Baha'u'llah to various aspects of life and thereby establish consistent patterns of change. In fact, learning to apply the teachings to achieve progress could be taken as the very definition of Baha'i social and economic development. Such learning has to occur locally, regionally, nationally and internationally and become the axis around which our development efforts are organised at all levels.2
Therefore the process of social and economic development is a gradual one which may be presented in the following diagram:
Friends coming together
Illumination by the Revelation of Baha'u'llah
Application of spiritual principles, rectitude of conduct and consultation
Establishing a consistent pattern of change
This is a simplistic representation of elements of the community development process, which does not include other elements such as goal setting and reflection on action. These appear to be elements and possibly stages which Baha'i communities may pass through in order to sustain and attain higher levels of social and economic development.
My experience in working in Sri Lanka and Ghana has sensitised me to, picking up on community activities, which may be interpreted as 'grass roots stirrings'. In attempting to assist communities build on their collective efforts the role of the outsider becomes a highly sensitive one. The two cases from Ghana demonstrate that waiting for the grassroots stirrings and working with Baha'i communities requires time for communities to learn to work together. The experience reveals that the elements of community will and volition through the inspiration of Baha'u'llah, learning together and unity are key elements to sustaining 'grass roots stirring'. To achieve higher levels of complexity there must be a reflexive process in place where consultation and learning come together but most importantly there is a need for communities to struggle and learn through their own mistakes while acting to help themselves.
The following two cases will explore the experience of two contrasting cases which demonstrate different elements of the experience, their journey to achieve higher levels of social and economic development. The cases do not attempt to explore all the various elements but to stimulate discussion on experience.
Part 2: Ghana Baha'i Communities and Social Economic Development: the case of Bowodie and Dedukope
Bowodie is a small community approximately eight hour's drive from the Capital City Accra, Ghana. It is a community set in the heartland of the Western region where there are intensive mining activities. Members of the community embraced the Baha'i Faith in the early 1970's. Some of the members of the community were known to drink but after embracing the faith many of the members of the Bowodie community transformed. Women also embraced the faith and started participating in the Baha'i community. Most of the members were from Christian backgrounds and learned gradually to work together.
Early in their history as a Baha'i community, the Bowodie Baha'is began working together and consulting on ways which they could help one another. They decided to start an oil palm plantation and collectively plant oil palm seedlings. The region was rich in oil palm but there were some higher yielding varieties, which had not been introduced. One Baha'i working in agriculture introduced the community to a new breed of seeds, which were doing well and the Baha'is started up their own oil palm seedling centre. The Baha'i agriculturist made sure that he did not bring the seeds to the community but instead introduced the community to the place that they could be found. Every year a few Bowodie Baha'is would travel to another region of the country to collect the seeds and come back to plant them. This stimulated an increasing amount of self-help spirit.
Farmers in the region recognised that the Baha'is were selling a higher breed of seedling and made an effort to come to Bowodie to buy. The oil palm seedlings centre was a success and generated funds for the community to expand its teaching work and the community eventually built their own Baha'i centre, with the assistance of the National Spiritual Assembly of Ghana. In the last few years since the Oil Palm plantation has been established, there has been a regular source of income for the Baha'i community and contribution to the National Funds. The oil palm plantation generates approximately 40 US dollars a month during the harvest season.
Bowodie Baha'i community faced increasing challenges from the wider community since there were several evangelical churches, which were opposed to the Faith. Collectively the community learned to face these challenges and grew together as a close group with their music and social activities. Today, the Baha'i community has been asked to consult with the Town Development committee, and act as advisors to the chief of the community. They have developed a reputation for their socio-economic development efforts and continue to engage in a growing number of projects.
Over the last year, the Bowodie community has begun was selected to co-ordinate literacy activities for Baha'i communities in the western region. They have been implementing the Baha'i literacy campaign in the region by providing the main institutional framework for the campaign through the Local Spiritual Assembly and the program has been gradually spreading to another five Baha'i communities. The Local Spiritual Assembly of Bowodie assists to organise training events monitor and support the literacy programs throughout the region.
Dedukope community in located in the southern Volta region of Ghana along the coast. Most community members are engaged in seasonal fishing and farming activities in the area. The Baha'i Faith was embraced by members of the Dedukope community in the early 1990's and the community began Baha'i socio-economic development programs soon after.
A few community members had been running a day nursery for children in the community, which eventually was converted, into a Baha'i school. The community wanted generates funds for the activities in the community so they decided to embark on a tree-farming project for cashew nut and wood. The same Baha'i involved in agricultural development assisted the community establish a cashew plantation and then a wood lot. The community had not engaged in many activities together. Over time the planting of the wood lot and the cashew farm fell on the shoulders of a few members of the community.
The community continued to engage in other Baha'i activities and increasingly showed interest in carrying out social and economic development work but the entire community had not learned to work together. Individuals would request for assistance in improving their farm individual farms and the problems of the individuals in the community overshadowed any collective action. The Baha'i community attempted starting an herbal garden but could not organise to bring the produce to market.
Dedukope community requested for assistance in maintaining their children's nursery and the teachers were supported for several years by a neighbouring Baha'i Assembly until the school was finally taken over by an NGO in the district. The community members were struggling to work together and had not learned the basic elements of collective action using the Baha'i principles.
Eventually their activities in the area of social and economic development gradually declined but their requests for outside assistance increased. The literacy campaign worked closely with the community in its piloting phase and one class ran for a year embracing a number of Baha'i and non Baha'i women. The feasts were not running regularly nor was there consistent Baha'i meetings where the entire community would come together. During consultations with the community, that there was high level of distrust among the members.
On several occasions different outsiders had entered the village in order to assist and some funds were given to individual members which created jealousies within the community. The individuals in the community continued looking for ways in which they could help themselves individually weakening the linkages and ability of the community to help themselves.
Part 3: Reflections and looking forward
The cases of Bowodie and Deducope both demonstrate different paths to community development. They both had some type of 'stirrings' within the community and minimal support from outside to support the collective action. Outsiders were careful in Bowodie's case not to take on responsibility for the activities that the community wanted to engage in. Instead they helped link the community to the information and resources which the community could then act on in order to solve the problem themselves. This approach helped to build the communities self-esteem and capacity to solve problems on their own.
The case of Dedukope was different and the community did not discover their own capacities to work together and help themselves before outside assistance came. In Bowodie's case the community gradually built self-awareness in planning and managing change. In the case of Deducope these skills have not yet been realised and the community looks outward for assistance to help themselves.
One significant difference was also the resources which two communities gained in propelling them to this stage. For Bowodie, the oil palm plantation assured a collective pool of funds to independently plan on a regular basis. Bowodie planned for generating income activities, which they could use to fund, their own programs for education, teaching and other social and economic development work. Deducope had still not been able to generate income, which would assist the community collectedly, act and continued relying on the Baha'i fund from other assemblies to assist with their activities. Dedukope was waiting to receive income from the wood lot and cashew nut plantation, and were dependent on funds from outside to sustain the Pre School.
What were the reasons for the different paths of these two communities? The difference appears to lie in the community's capacities to solve problems collectively and work together in a spirit of trust and fellowship. The Bowodie community was learning to solve problems collectively and engage in activities which would uplift their own Baha'i community and at the same time the greater community. They were also developing higher degrees of trust and unity in the process. Secondly the roles of outsiders were simply facilitating some of the activities in the process; sensitive to the fact the community may become dependent on their efforts.
Based on the elements of socio-economic development discussed in the first section and the experience of the two communities, the following chart can be considered:
|Elements of Baha'i socio-economic development||Bowodie||Deducope|
|Friends coming together||Evolved gradually
Regular occasions for consultation
|Few forums for collective thought and action such as feasts and other activities|
|Illumination of the Baha'i Revelation||Some members trained at the Baha'i training institute
Regular deepening programs for the adults and children
Literacy classes running in the community
|Members trained at the Baha'i training institute
Access to the holy word of God in local languages
No organised deepening program
|Application of Spiritual Principles||Women and men both actively involved in community life and
Identifying a need in the community, which could benefit the larger community (i.e. better variety of oil palm seedling).
|Recognition of the importance of education in the community especially for children|
|Rectitude of Conduct||Significant change and transformation in members of the
community. ( i.e. alcohol)
Community's behaviour transformed.
Unity and love amongst the Baha'is
|Participation not universal in the community. Only a few members
engaged in the Baha'i activities
Signs of distrust with some of the members of the community.
|Consultation||Strong pattern of consultation at the LSA's and other feasts|
|Learning to solve problems collectively||Long period of time to reflect on action and take increasingly more complex activities on board||Beginning to learn together|
|Establishing consistent pattern of change||Gradually establishing a consistent pattern of change and development|
(This chart is based on the authors own experience with the community and does not necessarily reflect the communities' views and opinions)
Techniques and methods for helping communities achieve higher levels of self-development
There are several techniques which can be considered by Baha'i communities in moving from stirrings at the 'grassroots' to higher levels of activity in the field of socio-economic development. It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe them in detail but they are:
• Strengthening the feasts and Baha'i forums for consultation which can stimulate plans for action and reflection in communities
• Participatory rural appraisal techniques which engage communities in the process of investigation of problems in the community and their possible solutions
• Ethnographic studies which engage people in living and participating in the lives of the people in their daily lives
• Small group methods to stimulate consultation, reflection and action within Baha'i communities around various issues: gender, race and economic issues.
• Literacy for empowerment and deepening on the Holy Word of God with consultation and action
Below we will consider one approach which has been used in Ghana over the last four years in assisting Baha'i communities build capacities for increased transformation and change through access the Holy Word of God. One of the main thrusts of Ghana Baha'i community over the last four years has been in relation to the second element described in the first section of the paper: illuminating the hearts through the revelation of Baha'u'llah. Literacy has proven to be an essential precursor for socio-economic development in the wider community and proves especially critical to Baha'i community development efforts. If Baha'i communities are to learn to apply the spiritual principles to solve social and economic problems first must come the 'illumination of hearts and minds to the revelation of Baha'u'llah'.
Through the assistance of the Universal House of Justice and the Office of Social and Economic Development. Ghana has begun engaging Baha'i communities in greater access the holy word of God through a Literacy campaign. The Enlightening the Hearts Baha'i Literacy Programme works with Baha'i communities which demonstrate a 'stirring' and have at least one strong Local spiritual assembly in a cluster of communities to implement literacy classes for children, youth and adults.
The literacy campaign uses a basic method for local language learning developed in Zaire and India of using generative words or key words, which have meaning to the learner. The books contain passages from the three religions: Baha'i, Christian and Moslem Holy Writings and engage the learners in a short and simple approach to learning the mother tongue. Part of the literacy curriculum involves using the holy word of God in solving problems in the community. After each lesson, the participants are asked to consult on a topic contained in the learner's book, which includes a holy writing to guide them in their deliberations.
The Baha'i communities have been engaged in these programs in three regions of the country and are demonstrating at increasing interest and capacities in education and service to the wider community. Through the literacy programme Baha'i communities will be assisted to uplift themselves to a higher level of social and economic development activity through individual and collective transformation. Women and youth have been particularly active in the campaign and there are currently 20 villages involved in the program in the country.
1. From a letter dated May 8, 1984 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly.
2. "Baha'i Social and Economic Development: Prospects for the Future", Statement approved by the Universal House of Justice, September 16, 1993.
Return to Papers List
Last updated 9 September 1999