New approach to development combines science and religion

24 November 2000

NEW DELHI — Noting the shortcoming of international development efforts to fully realize their goals of ending poverty and achieving social justice, speakers at a ground-breaking gathering of non-governmental, academic and religious organizations called for a new model of development that would emphasize spiritual and religious values as the missing ingredients in stimulating positive social change.

Called the "Colloquium on Science, Religion and Development," the event was held 21-24 November 2000 at the India International Center, with opening day ceremonies at the Baha'i House of Worship.

"Although there has been considerable evolution in development thinking over the past several decades, serious questions remain concerning present approaches and assumptions," said Bani Dugal Gujral of the Baha'i International Community's United Nations Office in an opening address on Tuesday. "The great majority of the world's peoples do not view themselves simply as material beings... but rather as social and moral beings concerned with spiritual awareness and purpose."

"It has thus become evident that the mainly economic and material criteria now guiding development activity must be broadened to include those spiritual aspirations that animate human nature," Ms. Gujral continued. "True prosperity -- a well-being founded on peace, cooperation, altruism, dignity, rectitude of conduct, and justice -- requires both the 'light' of spiritual virtues and the 'lamp' of material resources."

Co-sponsored by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the International Development Research Centre of Canada, Decentralised Training for Urban Development Projects, the Department of Secondary Education and Higher Education of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the World Health Organization (WHO) and The Textile Association (India), the Colloquium was organized by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India and the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, an agency of the Baha'i International Community.

Participants included representatives from a wide range of NGOs, academic institutions and religious groups involved in development work, mainly from India but also from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Colombia and Bolivia. The Colloquium also featured participation by representatives of the World Bank, UNICEF, WHO, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

"Development practitioners have for a long time been looking for a missing link, to explain the shortcomings of the current model," said Dr. Behnam Ta'i, the Regional Representative for South Asia of the Netherlands-based Institute for Housing and Urban Studies, who participated in the Colloquium. "For a long time, we thought it was the environment. Now there is a perception that spirituality is the link and the key idea for changing the attitudes for decision-making in the processes of development."

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The Colloquium on Science, Religion and Development featured a panel session exploring the relationship between justice and development.| The panel members were (left to right seated at table) Mr. Soli Sorabjee, Attorney General of India; Dr. Erma Manoncourt, Deputy Director, UNICEF, India; and Mr. Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. Ms. Bani Dugal-Gugral (standing), Director, Office for the Advancement of Women, Baha'i International Community moderated the session.

Katherine Marshall of the World Bank said religious organizations have long played a "special role" in both understanding and helping the poor. "Yet their insights and their work are too little known in many development circles," she said.

Ms. Marshall, who oversees the Bank's recently launched collaboration with religious organizations, known as the World Faiths Development Dialogue, urged a new partnership between religious groups and development specialists. "The idea should be to engage in a process that opens new windows of understanding, raises the bar of objectives, offers new insights and new visions, on all sides," said Ms. Marshall in an address on Tuesday.

The Colloquium featured a mix of plenary sessions and workshops, and allowed for a wide range of discussion and consultation. One specific focus was on how capacity building in the four areas of governance, education, technology and economic activity can be assisted through the introduction of spiritual perspectives and values.

In some respects, participants indicated, it raised as many questions as it answered. There was a wide-ranging discussion, for example, of what exactly constitutes "spirituality," "values," "religion," and "faith." Participants came from virtually every religious background, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, the Baha'i Faith -- as well as non-religious backgrounds.

But in the end, participants agreed on the importance of a number of principles and points, which will be compiled in a final statement of findings to be issued by the Colloquium's secretariat in the future.

Among the main points of agreement were: the importance of building new partnerships between religious organizations, NGOs, aid agencies and government offices concerned with development; the necessity of introducing moral or "values-based" curriculum in all educational endeavors; the significance of the principle of equality between women and men in all aspects of development; and the need to promote principles of good governance.

One frequently stressed theme was the essential harmony of science and religion.

"The formidable power of science and technology can benefit humankind only if we know how to temper it with humanism and spirituality," said M.S. Swaminathan, holder of the UNESCO Chair in Ecotechnology, in a talk on Wednesday at India International Centre, where the Colloquium was held.

Likewise, Haleh Arbab Correa of the Colombia-based Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences (FUNDAEC), said development specialists must begin to see "science and religion as two complementary sources of knowledge."

"The two systems are not as dissimilar as they are presented to be," said Dr. Arbab Correa. "Objective observation, induction, the elaboration of hypotheses, and the testing of predictions are important components of scientific methods. But they are also present in religious pursuits, albeit in different configurations and at different levels of rigor.

"Similarly, faith does not belong exclusively to religion," Dr. Arbab Correa continued. "Science, too, is built on elements of faith, particularly faith in the order of the world and the ability of the human mind to explain the workings of that order."

The centrality of justice to the development enterprise was also examined. "Creating a culture of justice," said the Attorney General of India, Mr. Soli Sorabjee, "is intimately bound up with a process of moral and spiritual development."

As well, participants stressed the importance of the acceptance of religious diversity. Toward that end, many suggested that interfaith activities should be encouraged and increased as a means of promoting a wider understanding of the common basis of all religions.

Participants ended the event by calling for more research on a number of these areas, including ways to create a set of development indicators that might assess the impact of a values-based approach to development and on identifying "best practices" of religiously inspired development efforts.

"Our goal was to bring together a diversity of organizations and practitioners in the field of development to explore how scientific methods and religious values can work together to bring about a new, integrated pattern of development," said Matthew Weinberg, Director of the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, one of the Colloquium's organizers.

"In many ways, this event was an experiment and a learning endeavor, since an integrated discourse on these three topics has really only recently begun to take shape in the world at large," said Mr. Weinberg, noting the efforts of the World Bank through its World Faiths Development Dialogue to promote a similar discussion. "The emphasis of this event was to involve national and grassroots level organizations in this dialogue. And we were pleased that a number of key points and possible lines of action were identified by the participants here for future consideration."

For more information, contact: Farida Vahedi / Deepali Jones / Han Ju Kim-Farley in New Delhi at: (91) 11 3070513 or (mobile) (91) 98 11040575.