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Archive for the ‘Organizations’ Category

Room for Debate at the New York Times today has one of a series of ‘conversations’ about the state of education in the US. Today’s discussion centers on the first draft of a set of national standards for all students to achieve in English and math by the end of high school. The Washington Post has a story, too.

As an English teacher by training and for the first eight years of my working life, I read the English Language Arts (ELA) standards (.pdf) with interest. I found little to disagree with in the document, and was even slightly gratified to note that most my lessons over eight years could have been taken for a model of how to implement those standards. (Of course, my students and supervisors might beg to differ.)

Aside from the content of the standards, though, I was interested in two aspects of the process through which they are being developed. First, the federal government is not involved in the drafting process, nor will it be involved in accepting them once they are developed. Instead, the several states are leading the charge in development, and adoption will happen (if it does) state by state. Second, the drafters have referred to the best standards they can find, not only among the several states, but also in the rest of the world. These two elements of the process represent, as I understand it, federalism at its best. Each state maintains its independence but uses innovations and best practice in other states (and, in the modern world, countries) to inform its own choices.

As ‘Abdu’l-Baha noted in a talk he gave in New York in 1912, this federated arrangement has no small consequences:

It is very evident that in the future there shall be no centralization in the countries of the world, be they constitutional in government, republican or democratic in form. The United States may be held up as the example of future government—that is to say, each province will be independent in itself, but there will be federal union protecting the interests of the various independent states. It may not be a republican or a democratic form. To cast aside centralization which promotes despotism is the exigency of the time. This will be productive of international peace.

Such a federal approach to developing educational standards is not confined to the U.S., either. A similar process in underway in Australia, as seen in national Statements of Learning. Viewed more broadly, developing common education standards across national boundaries can be seen as one step in the process of defining the standards of what ‘Abdu’l-Baha labels “human education”, which “signifies civilization and progress—that is to say, government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions, which are the activities essential to man as distinguished from the animal.”

Of course, the trend toward and necessity of training people to think across the boundaries of traditional bodies of knowledge, which I noted in Saturday’s post, plays a crucial role in developing our sense of what human education is, too. How can we have government, administration, sciences, great inventions, and elaborate institutions adequate to the world today if we cannot analyze broad trends and bring together information from a wide variety of fields? To take two recent examples, Jeffrey Sachs’s Common Wealth and Jared Diamond’s Collapse indicate just how much we can benefit from such an approach to thinking.

Of course, without divine education, the acquisition of human perfections which will allow us to use that way of thinking for our mutual progress, no amount of purely human education will do us much good. Perhaps we’re not quite ready for public schools to take on that subject matter yet.

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“O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease.”

Such is the exhortation of Baha’u’llah in the Persian Hidden Words, #54. The difficult thing, of course, is translating that high ideal into practical reality.

In at least one sphere, child mortality, a New York Times article today indicates that some progress is being made. According to Unicef, 2008 was the first year since 1960, when the fund began keeping records, that fewer than nine million children under the age of five have died.

The article uses activities and programs in Malawi as a case study of how the change has been about. Two paragraphs are especially interesting:

Malawi illustrates the essence of the most successful efforts to reduce child mortality: it has found many creative ways to get the most cost-effective treatments and prevention methods to women and children, even in remote rural areas. Those interventions have included not just mosquito nets and vaccinations, but also deworming medicines and vitamin A supplements that boost children’s immunity.

Perhaps Malawi’s most powerful weapon is its ranks of more than 10,000 high school-educated village health workers. With a minimum 10 weeks of training, medical checklists to aid them in diagnosing childhood killers and hardy bicycles to get around, they dispense medicines and give injections, tasks only doctors and nurses do in many other countries.

These village health workers play a crucial role in the reduction of child mortality because they are local. Malawi has seen that its own people are excellent resources: raising their capacity allows the country to tackle its difficult problems. The article gives one example of a health worker at work:

“These days, when a child falls sick in the night, the mother can knock on the door of the health assistant,” said Teresa Frazier, 40. Her own 5-year-old daughter died after falling violently ill one night when Ms. Frazier was a young mother in a Malawian village of mud huts that, at the time, was many miles from the nearest medical help.

But as the sun went down on Monday, Ms. Frazier walked up to the tiny, two-room home of Blessings Mwaraya, 27, a health worker who lives amid banana, avocado and mango trees. Ms. Frazier, who gave birth to nine children, seven of whom survived, said she could not manage any more.

She had come for an injection of Depo Provera for birth control. Mr. Mwaraya, who earns $90 a month, painstakingly shook the little glass bottle containing the solution, drew it into the needle and stuck it in her arm. Health experts say family planning enables women to space births apart and have fewer children, aiding them in bearing healthier babies and better providing for them as they grow up.

“It’s still difficult to feed them all,” Ms. Frazier said of her surviving children, noting the paltry yield of corn on her small plot. Had Mr. Mwaraya been in the village in her younger days, she would have chosen to have had only four children, she said.

And Mr. Mwaraya clearly has the spirit of service in mind as he fulfills his role:

“My interest was to assist my fellow Malawians who were falling sick but never had treatment at the village level,” said Mr. Mwaraya, dressed in a uniform of light blue pants and a short-sleeve jacket.

Even though he is not among the “rich ones on earth,” Mr. Mwaraya is guarding the poor among his countrymen through his work. His work at the local level strikes me as being crucial to its success; he has undergone training that allows him to fulfill a role in the heath of his community, but he is not expected to have advanced training which his work does not require. So what might be perceived as a weakness – his lack of formal education – does not become a barrier to improving the lives of people in the country.

Mr. Mwaraya’s work parallels the work happening in Papua New Guinea under the auspices of a Baha’i-inspired agency, the Rays of Light Foundation, and their Preparation for Social Action program. This program focuses on building capacities for people to be of service to their communities.

One of the first texts studied is “Classification” which engenders in students the capability to classify things. One of the themes explored in this text is that of ‘parasitism’, i.e. when one species benefits at the expense of another. A case study on malaria is presented giving explanation of how the disease is transmitted, how it affects the body and information about how the disease can best be minimised is given to the reader.

The World Health Organization has described malaria as the “leading cause of illness and death in Papua New Guinea” and statistics show over 70000 reported infections for the year 2003. Many communities in Papua New Guinea are plagued with mosquitoes and are often ill-informed about the disease and have little access to relief from it. By being able to inform others of the key prevention techniques and by undertaking projects such as draining stagnant water holes the PSA group is able to help lessen the impact of malaria in their microregion.

Training that took place in Lae, Papua New Guinea in 2008 included one such project on the grounds where the training was taking place. Participants noticed that a ditch dug for a fish pond that was never completed was harbouring thousands of mosquito larvae and was one of the probable causes for sickness of some of the attendees. By filling in the pond the PSA tutors took one step towards protecting the surrounding inhabitants from malaria. Draining swampy areas, using protective clothing and mosquito nets, educating community members about the responsible use of anti-malarial medicines, reducing exposure to mosquitoes during the peak hours of transmittance of the disease and other similar steps are all different aspects of this grass roots approach to solving one of the world’s most widespread problems.

So, just as in Malawi, local people do the work of improving their own communities. This is part of a larger effort within Baha’i communities to engage in meaningful and productive social action, beginning in earnest in the 1990s. Century of Light, a publication commissioned by the Universal House of Justice on the twentieth century, and titled with the name given to that century by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, describes the 1990s this way:

The decade that followed saw wide experimentation in a field of work for which most Bahá’í institutions had little preparation. While striving to benefit from the models being tried by the many development agencies operating around the world, Bahá’í communities faced the challenge of relating what they found in various areas of concern—education, health, literacy, agriculture and communications technology—to their understanding of Bahá’í principles. The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.

Perhaps the world is learning how to guard Baha’u’llah’s sacred trust.

UPDATE
It’s also important to note that at least some of the “rich ones on earth” are doing their part, too. From the Times article again.

Wealthy nations, international agencies and philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates have committed billions of dollars to the effort. Schoolchildren and church groups have also pitched in, paying for mosquito nets and feeding programs.

“If we say as a world we care about saving children, and tackle the problem systematically, piece by piece, we can make progress, and it’s really important for people to know that,” Mrs. Gates said in an interview.

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Gary Hamel has a blog at the Wall Street Journal called “Management 2.0,” which I occasionally read as someone who has taken on some management within my organisation in the past year or so. Imagine my surprise, then, when I went back to the blog after a hiatus and found Hamel giving advice to church leaders about their management issues. It’s quite a long post, but he summarizes his analysis and advice neatly at the end:

Over the centuries, religion has become institutionalized, and in the process encrusted with elaborate hierarchies, top-heavy bureaucracies, highly specialized roles and reflexive routines. (Kinda like your company, but only more so). Religion won’t regain its relevance until church leaders chip off these calcified layers, rediscover their sense of mission, and set themselves free to reinvent “church” for a new age.

Doing this is going to take a management revolution. Back in the first century, the Christian church was organic, communal and mostly free of ritual—and it needs to become so again—as does every organization, public or private, large or small.

“Organic, communal and mostly free of ritual”: that reminds me of the best of the Baha’i communities in which I’ve lived. Indeed, the whole program of the current activities of the Faith around the world could be described in just that way. At Transforming Neighbourhoods, you can have a look at how this works within the Canadian Baha’i community, though it’s certainly happening in other places too. This video by Dan Scott gives an excellent overview, though the other videos at the site are much more illustrative of the individual activities. (I would love to embed the video here, but the original site doesn’t have a ‘share’ feature, so you’ll have to go look for yourself.)

The core of Scott’s talk is in these two paragraphs:

When we talk about elevating a community, I think what we mean is endowing the community with a sense of mission, in which all the members, as diverse as they may be, work together in a common purpose: to promote the welfare and the well being of its membership, as well as those beyond its own borders. In which everyone works tirelessly in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.

Practically speaking, much of the work now focuses on what we can call “four core activities”: children’s classes, junior youth groups, devotional gatherings and study circles.

A broader description of the Baha’i community can be found here.

Indeed, the very nature of the Baha’i community is to be organic, communal, and without ritual. This is at the heart of its promise as the nucleus of a new system of human organization. Writing in 1934 of the Administrative Order of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi shared these auspicious words:

It will, as its component parts, its organic institutions, begin to function with efficiency and vigor, assert its claim and demonstrate its capacity to be regarded not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fullness of time the whole of mankind.

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