New Economics: Women’s Crucial Role

We need a new economics. The Prosperity of Humankind statement suggests that women have a “crucial” role in developing it. At summer school last week, we looked at how and why this might be.

In my previous post – fresh from that study class – I attempted to summarise The Prosperity of Humankind, the statement published by the Baha’I International Community as a contribution to the United Nations Summit on Social Development in 1995.

In a nutshell, the statement asserts that “the history of humanity as one people is now beginning”. It sets out a vision of a world based upon the consciousness of the oneness of humanity, and the principles of a framework for action in building it. It calls for a revolution in our thinking to reflect humanity’s coming of age: “An old world is passing away, and a new one is struggling to be born”.

Noting that “the principle of the equality of the sexes is fundamental to all realistic thinking about the future well-being of the earth and its people”, it continues:

“A commitment to the establishment of full equality between men and women, in all departments of life and at every level of society, will be central to the success of efforts to conceive and implement a strategy of global development.”

But – and here’s what, at first, might seem surprising – the statement goes further, asserting that women have a ‘crucial’ role in the development of new economic models; a role beyond simply being equally involved.  How, we wondered, might this be?

It’s clear that humanity needs a new economics. The prevalence and persistence of poverty, unemployment and apathy, as well as the gross inequalities in income, wealth and opportunity, can leave us despairing.  If we want a just world, we need a new mindset – and the consciousness of the oneness of humanity has surely to be its starting point.

In that context – as humanity recognises its oneness and moves to build a just world – our old ways of thinking about work and employment are clearly inadequate, based as they are on assumptions of inherent conflict and contest. As the Prosperity statement puts it:

“The classical economic models of impersonal markets in which human beings act as autonomous makers of self-regarding choices will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice.”

We need to develop economic models that transcend simply the demand and supply of goods, services and labour; that escape materialistic pre-occupations to focus on human well-being in its fullest sense.  Our conceptualization of work and employment needs to reflect what really matters for our true prosperity:

“Society will find itself increasingly challenged to develop new economic models shaped by insights that arise from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community.”

Women’s full engagement in this fundamental rethinking, the statement avers, will bring into play “a range of human experience and insight hitherto largely excluded from the discourse”.  And it’s clear that women’s voices are seen to bring something very special:

“Such an intellectual breakthrough—strongly altruistic rather than self-centered in focus—must draw heavily on both the spiritual and scientific sensibilities of the [human] race, and millenia of experience have prepared women to make crucial contributions to the common effort”.

A moment’s reflection and it makes perfect sense. If the well-being of the family and the community are to be central to our thinking about economic issues, then who’s especially well qualified to contribute? Who has so often – across centuries and cultures – been left to carry the burden of nurturing family life and building communities?

The Right To Work

Do we have a right to a job?

The International Bill of Human Rights, the fuller expression of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, includes a ‘right to work under just and favourable conditions‘, together with a ‘right to an adequate standard of living’.  But does the community have an obligation to provide employment? Yes, if we believe that humanity is one – and it’s through the concept of trusteeship.

This was one of two particularly interesting discussion points at an exhilarating Bahá’í summer school this week.  I had enrolled on a course studying The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement prepared by the Bahá’í International Community for the UN Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995.  What became apparent through our study over the week was that its themes are possibly even more relevant now than they were then.

I will get to the point, but first let me share the context, which contributed to the richness of the discussions. This event was organised by the UK Bahá’í community (this one was at Wellington College; the other English summer school this year was held at the equally beautiful Ampleforth College) but wonderfully diverse. My small study group included people from China, Malaysia, Italy, Australia, Egypt and Switzerland. They included a physics teacher, a surgeon, a first year undergrad student, an art teacher, a prosthetist and orthotist, an unemployed architect, an engineer and a development academic (breast-feeding her young one). Ages ranged from twenty to eighty years, and it wasn’t simply Bahá’ís either. And our consultation was especially illumined by two young women who had taken courses with the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity.

The Prosperity of Humankind statement is immense and nearly impossible to summarise. Its starting point is that we are living at an extraordinary time, a time of a profound transformation in human consciousness: “The history of humanity as one people is now beginning’”.

The statement asserts that justice is the one power that can translate this “dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected”. It proposes that consultation – freed from prejudice and partisanship – must be “the operating expression of justice in human affairs”. It calls for the empowerment of humankind through a vast increase in access to knowledge, and a fundamental redefinition of human relationships. And it discusses the nature of power and authority in the “world that is struggling to be born”.

The statement asserts that we all share responsibility for every child born into the world:

“Since the body of humankind is one and indivisible, each member of the race is born into the world as a trust of the whole.”

This trusteeship, it says, constitutes the moral foundation for most of the economic and social rights which the United Nations has attempted to define.  It goes on to extend the notion of the right to work, beyond simply the rights to work under just conditions or an adequate income (ie through unemployment benefits) :

“The security of the family and the home, the ownership of property, and the right to privacy are all implied in such a trusteeship. The obligations on the part of the community extend to the provision of employment, mental and physical health care, social security, fair wages, rest and recreation, and a host of other reasonable expectations on the part of the individual members of society.” [italics added]

This right to employment has to be understood within the context of concomitant responsibilities for the individual to seek work and to give of their best. It’s not a call for state-sponsored sinecures but a recognition, as the statement also points out, that work is special.

“Unlike animals, which depend for their sustenance on whatever the environment readily affords, human beings are impelled to express the immense capacities latent within them through productive work designed to meet their own needs and those of others. In acting thus they become participants, at however modest a level, in the processes of the advancement of civilization. They fulfill purposes that unite them with others.”

We are, the statement asserts, so much more than simply consumers demanding goods and services that support employment within a circular economic system. We are spiritual beings and within human consciousness lie limitless latent potentialities.  We yearn for meaningful work. To the extent that work is consciously undertaken in a spirit of service to humanity, it is a form of prayer. And it is the capacity of every individual to see himself or herself in this light that can call up the magnitude of effort and commitment that the economic tasks ahead – in particular, the eradication of poverty – will require.

We need, in short, to re-conceptualise work and to develop new economic models appropriate for humanity’s future. And that’s not a question that should – or can, any longer – be left to the elites. This is a challenge to which we are all called. Women in particular have a crucial role to play – and that’s the second particularly interesting discussion point, to which I’m going to need to return in a future post.

Your comments, as ever, warmly welcomed.