Bahá’ís and Social Action

The Bahá'í ethos of easing the burdens of others inspires believers to build schools and improve hea

There is an oft-quoted Bahá’í maxim that says that if religion brings about more hatred than harmony then we are better off without religion. It is by this measure that Bahá’ís also measure their own worth as a community.

Service to the world of humanity, becoming the cause of harmony, easing the burden of everyone whose path they cross, and making sure that their behaviour each day is better than the previous day's - these are all goals which Bahá’ís worldwide attempt to realize through their daily lives.

As a matter of faith, Bahá’ís – since the earliest days of their religion - have been active in setting up social projects to serve the needs of communities around the world. The vast majority of these have looked beyond the confines of self-help objectives for the Bahá’í community alone. In fact, it may be fair to say that such Bahá’í projects have only been ‘inward looking’ when intense persecution in certain countries has made it impossible for them to extend their desire to serve the wider community.

Schools have been the most popular amongst these social action projects and there are numerous well established Bahá’í inspired schools the world over – for example in Macau, India, Guyana and Zambia. However, projects also relate to other areas of life - such as agriculture, literacy, empowerment, health, challenging racism and environmental protection. The Bahá’í ethos in initiating such projects is simple. They are designed to raise the capacity of populations to take charge of their own lives and to develop the skills, knowledge and insights to progress their communities. Projects are developed in free and open consultation and in a spirit of equality and respect for populations and their traditions.

In recent years, the entire Bahá'í world community has become engaged in three lines of social action that are proving to be core activities for community building. In a predominately voluntary capacity, Bahá’ís are getting involved in a comprehensive syllabus of child and young teenage education, hosting meetings for prayer and reflection, and propagating study groups in neighbourhoods which use the Bahá'í sacred writings to train participants to become useful members of society.

As Bahá’ís we believe that a human being’s purpose is essentially a spiritual one. We are born into this life to develop our spiritual potential. But in Bahá’í metaphor this physical existence is a mere shadow of our true reality. The body is the temple of the soul and is destroyed on our physical death only to release the bird of our soul from its mortal cage. Since life’s purpose is to develop spiritual qualities while in a physical frame, then projects that aid individuals to focus on the spiritual – by pausing to reflect in devotional gatherings or by considering spiritual texts and reflecting them in a life of service to others – is actually core to human development.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.