Applying Baha'i Social and Economic Development Principles to Rural Education and Development in Latin America

Submitted by admin on 30. May 2011 - 23:19
Richards, Michael


Michael Richards

Presented at the Bahá'í Development and Environment Summit
Sidcot, UK, 15-18 August 1999


The 'System of Tutorial Learning' (SAT) project being implemented by the Bayan Association for Indigenous Social and Economic Development in northern Honduras and supported by the Bahá'í Agency for Social and Economic Development (BASED-UK) is based on a system of rural education developed over the last three decades in Colombia. Based on the observation that formal education systems suffer from 'urban bias' and encourage young people to migrate to the cities, SAT aims to provide the skills, knowledge and attitudes to promote sustainable rural development.

SAT is basically a non-formal secondary school education involving local tutors, and in which material and spiritual principles are integrated. There is a particularly strong emphasis on service to the community as the main motivating factor, as opposed to individual material gain. Much of the course involves practical 'learning by doing' activities, e.g., agricultural research plots. Many other rural development activities will also emerge using SAT as a springboard - especially in the areas of community organisation and marketing structures, agro-industrial micro-enterprises and agricultural experimentation. However progress has not been easy in Honduras, in spite of financial support from the British aid programme.


The Tutorial Learning System or, in Spanish, the Sistema de Aprendizaje Rural (SAT), project is being implemented in a remote area of Northern Honduras by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Bayan Association for Indigenous Social and Economic Development, and is being supported by the UK Department for International Development through the Bahá'í Agency for Social and Economic Development (BASED-UK) at the request of the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá'í World Centre. In order to gain a clear understanding of the conceptual basis of SAT, it is necessary to go back to the origins of the SAT methodology in Colombia in the early 1970s.

The Foundation for the Application and Teaching of Sciences (FUNDAEC) was formally established in Cali, Colombia in 1974 as a non-government organisation (NGO) committed to exploring alternative approaches to education and development. A lengthy diagnosis of the problems of rural development led FUNDAEC's Baha'í and non-Baha'í founders (largely composed of staff from a university) to conclude that appropriate rural education was an essential starting point for "sustainable rural development".


FUNDAEC found that development was defined largely in terms of modernisation and industrialisation, and that development projects based on this were making little contribution to the welfare of the vast majority of the rural populace. In fact the opposite was occurring; development projects were causing the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer and more dependent. FUNDAEC noted that 'development' was being promoted by aid agencies as a product rather than a process.

Inevitably the beneficiaries of development became more dependent on outside support. For example, 'participation' was limited to elaborate methods of inducing villagers to participate in projects designed by outsiders, whereas FUNDAEC defined participation in terms of people gaining control over their own destinies, through research, design and implementation of their own development processes. Hence "it could be claimed that a people were in charge of their own development only if they were learning systematically about the changes that occurred in their society, and were consciously incorporating in their continuous learning process appropriate elements from the universe of knowledge" (Arbab, 1984). This 'universe of knowledge' includes both their own knowledge and that of other peoples and groups in the world facing similar problems.

Since the formal education curriculum was inappropriate for developing the skills, knowledge and attitudes for rural life, and rather promoted urban values - farming was portrayed as a low prestige occupation, contrary to Bahá'í and other spiritual writings - it was leading naturally to a continuous exodus of young people to the big cities of Colombia like Cali and Bogota in search of the 'good life' and better employment prospects.

FUNDAEC also felt that it was vital to integrate spiritual concepts into education. Development projects had been designed around the concept of 'man' as a material, or at best a social being, rather than around his spiritual reality. Education and training without values tends to result in the beneficiaries using their superior knowledge and skills to further their own situation or even exploit those less fortunate themselves, further exacerbating rural poverty. Thus the SAT curriculum is organised around the concept of service to the community as the basic motivating principle as opposed to individual material gain, and emphasizes moral values like honesty and trustworthiness. SAT students have to carry out literacy and health service projects with a number of neighbouring families as part of their practical studies.

FUNDAEC also decided to integrate different disciplines or academic subject areas, for example, maths, science and farming technology. Thus when SAT students learn to do percentages and fractions, they are also learning about the economics of running a chicken farm and basic accounting methods. This is in contrast to the normal urban type examples, and is one illustration of the practical application of the principle of unity in diversity. Another essential aspect of FUNDAEC's development philosophy is that a precondition for sustainable development is to develop structures or institutions that belong to the people. This is necessary for consultation of problems, transparency of decision-making and organisation of resources. As the learning process develops, various structures found in the Bahá'í writings, like the Local Spiritual Assembly, the nineteen day feast as a forum for consultation, and the village storehouse, can gradually take centre stage in the village development process, as has happened to some extent in Colombia.


On the basis of these ideas, FUNDAEC dedicated itself to the establishment of an institution that would evolve into the learning institution of a particular region of Colombia - the Valley of Cauca. This institution was called the Rural University, the name itself chosen partly to question the standard 'urban university' model. The essence of the rural university concept was that the learning, research and development processes should take place in the community in their appropriate rural context. The tasks of the Rural University were defined in terms of a series of learning processes among the rural population, designed to set in motion positive integrating economic, social and spiritual forces that would resist and eventually overcome opposing disintegrating forces, e.g., exploitative marketing and credit arrangements.


SAT is a non-formal secondary school level education system taught by tutors from the area who are trained up. A vital aspect of the system is the SAT texts. These are highly interactive workbooks, originally developed in Colombia by leading educational experts in various fields - mathematics, sciences, sociology, etc. SAT has three levels at the secondary school level, each one lasting about 18 months to two years in Colombia. The first level is 'Impulsor of Rural Well-being'. At this level, 28 courses and textbooks are studied in the areas of agriculture, mathematics, sciences, service to the community, readings and comprehension, and descriptions, as detailed in Table 1. These texts especially aim to help the students in the development of their conceptual thinking and critical faculties. These are regarded as essential aspects of the independent investigation of truth, which is another underlying Bahá'í principle in the programme.

The second and third stages of SAT are the Practitioner and Bachiller levels of Rural Well-being, again supported by equivalent sets of workbooks. The Ministry of Education in Colombia has officially recognised these three levels as equivalent to the entire secondary school syllabus. FUNDAEC now runs a five year university degree in rural education and development.

Another important component of SAT is the agricultural 'subsystems' unit, which is oriented to the search for more diversified and appropriate farming systems. This involves the development of a number of agricultural systems involving different combinations of crops with varying production cycles which complement each other, for example in the use of soil nutrients, release of nutrients (for example from green manure cover crops and nitrogen fixing legumes), complementarity in terms of labour inputs, timing of outputs and revenue, etc. Here the principle of unity in diversity ties in with ecologically sound farming practices.

Each group of 'impulsors' has a research plot, which usually belongs to one of the students but may also be land loaned by the community. The students help design the research plots, unlike in many development projects in which farmers participate and provide their labour in researcher-designed experiments. This reflects another important principle - respect for the farmers' traditional knowledge and rationality; the aim is to combine outside and local knowledge in the search for more efficient and effective farming systems which can bring about a better nutritional balance for the family and increase family income. At the same time, the importance of viewing nature as a source of life to be loved and cared for is emphasised.



MATHEMATICS 1. Groups and numbers

2. Adding and subtracting

3. Decimal system

4. Multiplication and division

5. Application of arithmetic operations

6. Fractions and percentages

7. Epidemiology and demography
SCIENCES 1. Growth of a population of insects

2. Calorific processes

3. Plant growth

4. Utilisation of electric energy

5. Photosynthesis

2. Literacy

3. Community processes 
READINGS AND UNDERSTANDING Consists of 20 sections of readings about society, culture, the environment, values and the analysis of social processes 
DESCRIPTIONS 1. Properties

2. Systems and processes

3. Description of a family

2. Subsystems

3. Poultry rearing

Other practical research and development processes which are part of the SAT programme, and build on the educational basis, include the development of micro-enterprises, generally involving agro-industry or the processing of agricultural products in the community; a revolving credit scheme involving small groups of farmers which assume group responsibility for loan repayment; pre-school education; and community organisation.

The teaching and 'hands-on' research into rural development processes takes place in the evenings and weekends, so that students can continue their formal education studies and/or daily work routines. One of the main reasons for desertion from the formal education system is that students are needed to work on the farm. The timing of SAT activities means that the students can continue to contribute to the household economy, and enables SAT to complement rather than compete with or substitute for the formal schooling system when the latter is present.

There is no doubt that, at least in Colombia, SAT has been successful. At present, there are approximately 35,000 students studying SAT at the various levels. This covers about a third of rural Colombia. Most of the SAT programmes are run by NGOs coordinated by FUNDAEC. Remarkably for a 'development' programme, all the costs of the educational part of SAT (although not the development-type activities like the credit programme, which still need some donor support), including FUNDAEC's staff costs, are paid for by the Colombian government through the Ministry of Education. It can therefore claim to be financially sustainable.

Another very interesting aspect of the experience in Colombia is that in the Cauca Valley where FUNDAEC has concentrated its programme there are now over 100,000 Bahá'ís. The first conclusion might be that FUNDAEC has been involved in proselytising the Bahá'í Faith via the educational materials. However the Bahá'í Faith is not mentioned in SAT. Rather it seems that by opening people's minds and getting them to think critically about their society, SAT has encouraged the independent investigation of truth. When SAT students come into contact with the Bahá'í Faith, through for example the activities of the Ruhi Institute (the sister-organisation of FUNDAEC), they are naturally attracted to the same spiritual principles as underlie SAT, as for example the latent capacity of human beings to develop noble qualities, unity in diversity, service to the community, independent investigation, etc.


SAT is now being promoted in several other countries in Latin America - including Costa Rica, Bolivia, Panama and Honduras. The Bayan Association for Indigenous Social and Economic Development was established in the mid-1980s by two pioneering Bahá'í families in one of the remotest areas of Honduras at the meeting point of two indigenous societies the Garifuna people, of mixed Black Carib and West African descent, and the Miskito Indians of northern Honduras and Nicaragua (hence the area is called Mosquitia). This is an area in which the only access is by sea or light aircraft, and where the main form of transport is by dug-out canoe.

Some 7,000-10,000 people inhabit this zone, mainly living on the coast and on inland waterways which cut through the jungle-like coastal marshland. The communities depend upon the sea and farming for their livelihoods. Particularly among the Garifuna, the men do the fishing using rudimentary technology - casting nets from dug-out canoes - while the women are the main farmers. In both Garifuna and Miskito communities, the men are often at sea for long periods of time, employed on the deep sea vessels which ply the Gulf of Mexico fisheries; thus households are normally headed by women for a significant part of the time. A particular problem amongst the Miskitos is that their economy is heavily dependent on income from the dangerous occupation of lobster diving - some 4,000 men are involved in this activity, and a high proportion of them suffer from the 'bends' and related problems. The area is environmentally important since it is in the buffer zone of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, as declared by UNESCO in 1980. It was the first Biosphere Reserve in Central America, and with 525,000 ha2 is easily Honduras' largest protected area with probably the largest area of tropical rain forest in Central America.

The two families, including two doctors, a nurse and an educationalist, at first focused on building a small rural hospital in the small town of Palacios (which became the project headquarters) and providing a basic health service to a people who, at that time, had no health services. In the case of infirmities that could not be cured by traditional remedies, either they had to somehow find US $150 to fly to the nearest hospital in the city of La Ceiba, or as revealed to the author in a socio-economic survey of the area, they died.

Over the years, while improving the range of health services to the surrounding population, Bayan realised the need for a more integrated approach to the region's problems. In particular they made progress in the areas of community organisation based on consultation, support for formal education (including running annual training courses for schoolteachers), training of community health workers, and building up the project infrastructure (accommodation, solar energy, engineering works, etc.). Some of these efforts were supported by state institutions and international donors.

Therefore in 1996, Bayan started to implement SAT with technical assistance support from FUNDAEC, and, at least initially, financial support from the Canadian aid agency and Kellogg Foundation. The objective was to educate 200 'impulsors', 150 'practitioners' and 50 'bachillers' in rural well-being over a six year period in order to lay the foundations for a process of sustainable development in the area.


The experience in Honduras has not been at all easy to date, and the project is still undergoing some major teething problems. The biggest problem has been finding sufficient good quality tutors from the people of the area. This is a classic 'chicken and egg' problem. Without reasonable education, there are relatively few people to choose from. The poor quality of tutors has in turn caused considerable desertion, so that there are currently only about a hundred SAT students. Other difficulties have included:

- transport and communications difficulties for the field coordinators to be able to provide adequate support to the SAT tutors and groups;
- the difficulty of retaining any outside recruited staff in such a remote and inhospitable area;
- opposition from some local religious leaders and teachers in the area;
- the difficulty for both men (often away at sea) and women (more child-bearing and family obligations since they are often the heads of households);
- the difficulty for people to accept an education system without fixed hours, a fixed place to study and when the students do not wear uniforms (a problem of traditional stereotyped ideas about the form education should take);
- the fact that educational levels are lower in Honduras than Colombia, so that some of the texts have proved too complicated - modifying them has taken time; and
- economic difficulties for SAT students to continue - the pressure of poverty meaning that they do not have time to study.

As against this, some SAT groups show great enthusiasm in their studies, and have carried out many service activities in their villages. They are beginning to show a new set of values and ideas, and in some places the wider community has responded warmly to SAT; for example, in some communities the SAT groups have received support in the form of a plot of land to build a SAT centre or donations of building materials.

The Ministry of Education has been very supportive, and in a recent (March 1999) visit to the project, the Minister of Education expressed his enthusiasm, saying that he felt it was very important for rural development in Honduras. The Ministry has also recognised the first two levels of SAT as equivalent to the formal educational qualifications, which was a great achievement for Bayan. The good relationship with the Ministry has resulted from a long and carefully nurtured process of consultation between Bayan's founders and the Ministry. Finally, the project continues to enjoy the wholehearted support of the British Government aid agency, the Department for International Development (DFID). In a telephone conversation with the author it was mentioned that SAT was regarded as one of the best projects in their NGO aid portfolio.

One interesting difference in Honduras is that 80% of the SAT students are female. As explained above, this is largely due to the occupational structure. This means there that on the one hand there is a unique opportunity to promote the empowerment of women in the development process. On the other hand, however, it is more difficult for girls and women (many of whom have babies or very young children) to be able to devote as much time to education as the men, and this gender imbalance has been one of the main difficulties for Bayan.


Since starting the SAT programme in 1996, Bayan has obtained significant funding from three donors - firstly the Canadian International Development Agency and Kellogg Foundation for the first 18 months of the project, and a grant of over £250,000 (including a £40,000 increase following Hurricane Mitch) from DFID for the period from April 1997 through to March 2002. It is important to point out that this represents only about half the total cost of the project; the other half has to be found by raising so-called 'matching funds' through successful applications to other funders, or in the last resort directly from Bahá'í sources. Raising funds has not been easy, and approaches to the Spanish Government, the Canadian aid agency and the European Union have not so far borne fruit. Therefore in the current financial year (1999-2000) the UK National Spiritual Assembly is donating some £45,000 to the project so that the World Centre does not have to pay this money (the World Centre has underwritten the project by agreeing to find the 50% matching funds if other fund-raising efforts are unsuccessful).

This may all seem very expensive for a development project, but as a long-term rather than quick-fix approach to development, the establishment costs are quite high. An education programme involves considerable human resources which have to be paid for, especially in poor countries where people have little personal savings to fall back on. Secondly it should be realised that this is a pilot or demonstration project. The idea is that after development of SAT over probably a 5-10 year period, the Ministry of Education in Honduras will extend the model to other areas as in Colombia. It should be recalled that success did not come overnight in Colombia; it has taken FUNDAEC almost 30 years to get to where it is today.


SAT is tackling what is arguably the most important obstacle to sustainable development the lack of appropriate skills, knowledge and attitudes for the development of individual and community capacity for self-reliant development. It is truly empowering in that it provides the possibility for rural people to shape their own development according to their aspirations, rather than the perceptions of outsiders. An important aspect of SAT is that it has a built-in sustainability, at least in terms of human resources. The most important output of the education process is a number of thinking and skilled young people who should become community leaders; some of them will also go on to become SAT tutors, as has happened in Colombia.

An essential aspect of SAT for sustainable development is that it helps provide the necessary values for development. It is becoming increasingly realised that development projects based on purely material concepts and goals are not sustainable. This is because sustainable development requires a unifying set of moral values or what some might call a common ideology or view of reality which gives people meaning to their lives. With the decline of religion in society, such a unifying ideology is sorely missing. It is now widely acknowledged that it is materialistic value systems which foster the egotism, greed and corruption which causes development programmes to flounder - and perpetuates the inequities which make the rich ever richer and the poor worse off.

In spite of this being better understood, many development programmes still appear to continue to think that 'man lives by bread alone', or that human reality is basically physical. Most development projects thus express their goals in terms of raising standards of living, reducing poverty, reducing infant mortality, etc. Laudable as such goals are, there is undoubtedly something missing. A recent statement by the Bahá¹í International Community (1998) states that the 'real purpose' of development is "the cultivation of the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness." By contributing to the 'real purpose' of development, SAT is laying the basis for truly sustainable development. But this is no easy task; it requires money and takes time, sacrifice and perseverence, as the experiences in Colombia, and now Honduras, show. The UK Bahá'í community currently has the great privilege of being able to assist, at the express desire of the World Centre, this vital project in Honduras, and thereby help demonstrate to the wider society the practicality and sincerity of our spiritual principles.


Arbab F. 1984. Rural University Learning about Education and Development. International Development Research Centre. Ottawa, Canada.

Bahá'í International Community. 1998. Valuing Spirituality in Development. Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development. Presented at the World Faiths and Development Dialogue, Lambeth Palace, London. 18-19 February 1998.

International Environment Forum - Updated 14 August 1999