Rural development is the focus at UN Commission on Sustainable Development

UNITED NATIONS - Over the last 30 years, the Bahá'í-inspired SAT program has trained upwards of 100,000 people in Latin America in new methods of rural development, using a distinctive integrated approach that places knowledge and individual empowerment at its center.

The program and its effectiveness were highlighted at this year's UN Commission on Sustainable Development in a "best practices" Learning Center workshop on 8 May 2008. Titled "SAT: A Model for Building Capabilities for Sustainable Rural Development," the three-hour workshop examined how SAT, an acronym for Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial (Tutorial Learning System), helps students in rural areas develop critical thinking skills and specialized knowledge that lead to social action.

While SAT is an accredited secondary education program, it meets the distinctive needs of rural communities, said Tahirih Naylor, a UN representative of the Bahá'í International Community, which sponsored the workshop.

The tutor and students can determine the time and duration of their classes to fit into their schedule thereby allowing those occupied in farming or other agricultural activities to participate, she said. It is also designed to encourage individuals to stay in their communities and contribute to local development rather than travel to urban areas to obtain secondary education.

"It's not simply about poverty alleviation," Erin Murphy-Graham, a faculty member in education at the University of California, Berkeley, said during the workshop. "Development is about building human capabilities."

Dr. Murphy-Graham, a Bahá'í who has researched the effects of the SAT in Honduras, said the program seeks first to develop capabilities in individual and group decision-making, given that individual transformation must parallel societal transformation. "We don't see that these two processes can be separated," she said.

Rural development focus at CSD

The Commission was held 5-16 May 2008, and this year's meeting focused on the obstacles and barriers that have prevented sustainable development in Africa, and also on the issue areas of agriculture, land use, rural development, drought, and desertification.

Almost 60 government ministers attended this year, along with 680 representatives from 126 non-governmental organizations, according to the UN.

Need for investment in agriculture

Much of the meeting stressed the need to increase investment in research and development in innovative and sustainable agricultural technologies and infrastructure in developing countries - especially in light of the growing global food price crisis.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in an address to the Commission, said, "after a quarter century of relative neglect, agriculture is back on the international agenda, sadly with a vengeance. The onset of the current food crisis has highlighted the fragility of our success in feeding the world's growing population with the technologies of the first green revolution and subsequent agricultural improvements."

During the Commission meeting, many countries expressed concern that a number of factors had contributed to the present situation, including climate change, unfair trade policies, poor land management, and a lack of roads and access to markets in rural agricultural areas.

In addition to the workshop on the SAT program, the BIC sponsored two side events at this year's session of the Commission - a panel discussion on "The Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change: Implications for Africa's Agricultural and Rural Development" and another titled "Sustainable Development Without Rural Women?" Nineteen Bahá'ís from nine countries attended as civil society participants.

"Occurring against a backdrop of both the food and climate change crises, the commission this year provided a key platform for Bahá'í delegates to emphasize the importance of agriculture ... in our global development strategy," said Ms. Naylor.