Interfaith

In New Delhi, a search for the missing ingredient in international development

At a ground-breaking "Colloquium on Science, Religion and Development," specialists from all three fields gather to consider how better to integrate efforts to eliminate poverty and achieve social justice.

NEW DELHI, India - As the birthplace of Hinduism, one of the world's oldest religions, and home to significant communities of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahá'ís, India's spiritual heritage is deep and diverse.

And with some 85 percent of its population living on less than two US dollars a day, India is also a place where issues of poverty, social justice, and development are high on the national and international agendas.

These two realities - which often seem at odds - made India an ideal venue to begin a new grassroots-level dialogue between development specialists, religious leaders, and scientists here from 21 to 24 November 2000.

Titled simply the "Colloquium on Science, Religion and Development," the event was in many ways modest in its approach. Limited to roughly 150 participants, its main result was largely a strong sense that the discussion and networking begun here should continue.

Participants and organizers clearly felt invigorated and encouraged by the dialogue, which broke new ground in seeking to create a bridge between the seemingly disparate worlds of "science, religion and development."

In particular, participants stated forcefully that the world needs a new model for international development that emphasizes spiritual and religious values as the missing ingredients in stimulating positive social change.

"[T]he great majority of the world's peoples do not view themselves simply as material beings," said the Colloquium's "Preliminary Statement of Findings," issued and affirmed on the event's final day. "Rather, they understand themselves primarily as spiritual beings, and are as much concerned with social and moral well-being as with material progress."

"It is our belief that what is needed, then, is a new model of development that draws on both scientific methods and the universal values inherent in all religions," the Statement of Findings continued. "Such a model, we believe, will be better able to stimulate human transformation and build individual and community capacity than the mainly materialistic approach that has dominated the current development paradigm."

Diverse participation

Organized by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of India and the newly formed Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, the event was co-sponsored by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC), Decentralized Training for Urban Development Projects, the Department of Secondary Education and Higher Education of India's Ministry of Human Resource Development, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Textile Association (India).

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 Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Participants came from virtually every religious background, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and the Bahá'í Faith - as well as non-religious backgrounds.

In a written message, Indian President K.R. Narayanan welcomed the "galaxy of eminent people from different parts the world" to India and praised the Colloquium's topic. "In order to provide the much needed sanity and strength to our crisis-ridden existence, there is an imperative need to weave the developmental path with the ideals of our heritage and civilization and blend them with science," said President Narayanan.

In its program, the Colloquium featured a mix of plenary sessions and workshops, with much time set aside for open discussion and consultation. In the workshops, four thematic areas were identified as focal points: governance, education, technology and economic activity. For each of these thematic areas, participants were asked to discuss and identify how spiritual principles and perspectives might be incorporated to create new insights.

"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.

"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. "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."

Indeed, among the main results of the Colloquium was a sense that there is much more to be explored in this dialogue. And most participants said they wanted to see some sort of new network or ongoing follow-up project emerge.

Finding the "missing link"

"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 environment was the link. 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."

"So the topic and content of the Colloquium was extremely relevant to today's needs, as far as development is concerned," Dr. Ta'i added.

The tone for the discussions was set principally by two keynote speakers in an opening session held outside on the grounds of the Bahá'í House of Worship in New Delhi, the famous "Lotus Temple" that is one of India's most visited sites.

"Although there has been considerable evolution in development thinking over the past several decades, serious questions remain concerning the present approaches and assumptions of development practices and policies," said Bani Dugal Gujral of the Bahá'í International Community's United Nations Office in an opening address on 21 November.

"Social advancement, we know, does not arise solely from material progress but is based upon the values that weld society together," Ms. Dugal 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."

In her opening address, also delivered outside the House of Worship, 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 collaboration with religious organizations, known as the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), 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," Ms. Marshall said.

On 22 November, the Colloquium moved to the India International Centre, and there participants quickly began to engage in just such a process, looking at various aspects of what a new partnership between science, religion and development might mean.

"Truth" in science and religion

One frequently stressed theme was the essential harmony of science and religion, and the importance of drawing on the insights and resources of both fields in seeking to devise a new approach to social and economic development.

"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.

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."

Recognition of this essential harmony and its application to development, said Dr. Arbab Correa, could "break the present pattern of the flow of knowledge in the world" in a manner that could "dissociate development from a cruel and destructive process of modernization."

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."

At the various thematic workshop sessions, these and other themes were more broadly developed. Other points that emerged included the importance of increasing popular participation in development, the importance of bringing moral values into the educational process, and the need for new forms of economic activity based on cooperation and altruism rather than consumerism.

In remarks at an afternoon workshop on 23 November, Cherukuri Indira Dasgupta of the People's Institute for Development and Training in New Delhi suggested that the widespread rejection of religion in educational processes has lead to a "vacuum" of values, which threatens to leave children to "float at the mercy of circumstance and situation" such that "their lives will never be their own."

"Contemporary education is not without values," said Ms. Dasgupta. "However, often these values are not made explicit. Usually, the teachers are not aware of the values that are being taught. There needs to be now a full and thorough theological understanding of concepts, attitudes and values that are being transmitted."

Throughout the Colloquium, one of the main points of discussion was over what exactly constitutes "spirituality," "values," "religion" and "faith" - and whether there is common ground on which religious groups can come together to create a unified vision of what development really means.

"Religion has somehow become a dirty word, because of the widespread religious conflicts in the world," said S. K. Sharma of People First, a New Delhi-based NGO. "But religion is a science of ethics."

Ms. Marshall of the World Bank suggested that the history of conflicts among religions and their continuing differences over theology will likely pose the biggest challenges in any continuing dialogue.

"At the Millennium World Peace Summit in New York, we saw both the power of the symbolism of the coming together of various faiths and some of their common themes, but we also saw the difficulties of communication and also some of the raw tensions between them," said Ms. Marshall, referring to a major gathering of world religious leaders at the United Nations in August 2000.

"This is not a trivial issue," said Ms. Marshall, addressing the Colloquium on the final day. "It is very significant, very complex, and it requires a thoughtful approach."

In the end, Colloquium participants agreed on the importance of a number of principles and points, as affirmed in the Statement of Findings.

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" curricula in all educational endeavors; the significance of the principle of equality between women and men in all aspects of development; the imperative of creating institutional mechanisms, such as centers of technology training and research, to foster local learning; the value of linking the human rights and development agendas; and the need to promote principles of good governance.

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 in 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.

Common values

"We see the need to undertake a careful program of research to determine the common values of all religions," said the Statement of Findings. "We also see the need to explore the content and pedagogy of moral and values-based education."

As well, virtually all of the participants indicated a keen willingness to continue the dialogue across the three issue areas of science, religion and development.

"I really found the Colloquium stimulating, and it has given me a glimmer of hope for the future path of development," said Barry Underwood, Chief Executive Officer of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, India.

Promilla Kapur, a Hindu sociologist who has studied these themes and is Director of Integrated Human Development Service Foundation, a New Delhi-based NGO, said the Colloquium left a "deep mark on the minds and hearts" of participants. "The Colloquium made people think about issues they were not thinking about, specifically the interface between science, religion and development," said Ms. Kapur. "And I think more and more people will start and have already started thinking in these terms."

Farida Vahedi, who coordinated the event on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of India, said a "solidarity of spirit" emerged among participants.

"Determining how religious insights and principles can be infused into our understanding, practice and assessment of development is no easy task," said Ms. Vahedi. "But the interchange among the Colloquium participants showed that there is much to be gained from giving serious attention to the role of spiritual values in building human capacity. The collective verdict of the participants was that social transformation cannot come from political prescriptions or technical recipes alone."

Follow this link to read the Colloquium's main concept paper, "Science, Religion and Development: Some Initial Considerations."

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