26 August 2007

Grameen and Spirituality

Yesterday I went to a fair in which women clients of a local Grameen replica bank offered their goods to the public celebrating the bank’s 5th anniversary. Seeing so many women touched by the reenactments of their own home situations in which their men spend most of their earnings on themselves before arriving home, and contrasting that with the beautiful variety of homemade candles, toys, clothes, wedding decorations, jewelry and food that now give them and their children much more dignity, caused a great impact on many of us there.

About 6 months ago now I was elected to the Board of Directors of this Grameen replica bank in a general assembly of a large number of the client-owners. From this vantage point, I can see first hand how over 2000 women benefit from quite a variety of things starting with small loans to initiate and later build up their own micro-business. They also benefit from valuable training in the Grameen methodology. And although they also receive training in basic accounting, customer service and other business related topics, learning to guarantee loans for themselves and other women in their group through nothing but solidarity is what ultimately makes banking with the poor successful.

I became interested in the Grameen methodology through research into complementary or social currencies and later in community banking methods practiced by the Baha’i international community. I am learning a tremendous amount about economic development through “La Cooperativa DeTodas”, and the concrete results generated in many families are undeniably important.

However, there are many essential issues I have been questioning subconsciously that have slowly bubbled over to the forefront of my mind. Hopefully, I can explore them all through this blog and generate discussion with others interested in these topics.

As I ask and look for answers to many new questions about economic development, I find that many older questions are sprouting up anew. Foremost among them are concerns about focusing a development strategy entirely on humanity’s material nature, relegating our spiritual yearnings to the realm of personal, emotional fulfillment. There is of course, nothing wrong with development strategies that aim at generating material prosperity. In fact if a development strategy didn’t have this aim, it would be guilty of the opposite, and equally imbalanced, offence.

The obvious dangers involved in integrating traditional and dogmatic religious concepts into development strategies have distanced most of those interested in creating and increasing prosperity from discussions about the role of spirituality in development. Rightly so, as traditional religious discourse too often only fans differences and generates discord. It is easier to focus on issues we all agree upon, especially when they are also the most visible and cause the most immediate impact.

Giving up this easily on spirituality, and on the human spirit, however leads us to visualize development within a context that equates prosperity with material well-being. It also equates prosperity with properly conceived and functioning public, private and social structures taking socialism as its model, either consciously, or more likely, unconsciously. It has also led us to a tragically flawed economic order that celebrates material comfort of a few at the expense of monumental suffering of the masses of humanity. Simplistic answers to questions about generating prosperity thus generate hasty and ultimately shallow results.

Even though it implies a more complex planning and execution process, the “powers of the human spirit responsible for some of the greatest accomplishments of humanity’s past such as the power of unity, of humble service, of noble deeds, of love, and the power of truth” can be released only when development efforts are “formulated and carried out in the context of an emerging world civilization.” Indeed, this is a great and complex process that needs carry humanity into the next stage of its evolution defined by “a dual cry … heard everywhere rising from the heart of the great masses of humanity … that demands the extension of the fruits of material progress to all peoples and, at the same time, it calls out for the values of spiritual civilization.”

Defining the hallmark of this civilization occurs when universally shared values are elevated to principle. The overriding principle that contextualizes and provides a practical aspect to this effort is the oneness of humankind. A collective life that foments dignity, justice, participation and joy, as exemplified by the harmonious integration of a huge variety of cells in the human body, happens as a “result of a gradual unfoldment of the potentialities of the human spirit,” as these spiritual notions touch the very depths of human motivation. This evolutionary process “will attain a stage of fulfillment when humanity is at last able to undertake the task of laying foundations for a unified and advanced civilization. Progress towards such a goal demands rapid and organic change in the very structure of society, accompanied by an equally profound change in human consciousness.”

This dual transformation process is what I yearn to see in the Cooperativa DeTodas and in each of its participants. In this sense, I feel responsible for sharing this vision with my fellow members of the Board of Directors, especially because I have been asked to re-conceptualize and execute the training process for the bank’s clients and co-owners. I’d like to explore the implications of training within this framework in another blog because it is the spiritual-material context that primarily concerns me here.

*All quotes taken from “Science, Religion and Development”, pages 83 – 86, Dr. Farzam Arbab, FUNDAEC, 2001.