A System of Global Governance
Following a framework set down by Baha'u'llah, Baha'i communities conduct their business through a distinctive administrative system that promotes new patterns of collective action.
Underlying the most dynamic movements, conflicts, and institutions of the last 100 years has been a key question: how shall humanity govern itself — and by what means can the greatest number of people achieve happiness and prosperity?
By early in the twentieth century, despotism had been widely rejected and the First World War utterly dismantled its most powerful examples. The Second World War settled the question of fascism and led to the end of colonialism. More recently, the most ambitious of the various economic and political ideologies, communism, has been thoroughly discredited.
As we begin the new millennium, a consensus has emerged that some form of government by the people — one that combines free elections, safeguards for individual expression, and yet a firm sense of responsibility to the common good — offers the best system of governance.
There is no clergy in the Baha'i Faith. Baha'is elect their leadership by secret ballot, in a distinctive system without campaigning or nominations. Shown here are delegates from around the world voting in 1998 to elect the Universal House of Justice, the Baha'i Faith’s supreme governing council. High Resolution Image
As an ideal, this system is often referred to as “democracy.” Yet, although clearly superior to other systems so far tried, democracy as practiced today is nevertheless undergoing its own convulsions.
“In every country where any of this people reside, they must behave towards the government of that country with loyalty, honesty and truthfulness.”
In the West, despite its successes, the multi-party system increasingly reveals its limitations. In many countries, corruption, mud-slinging, negative campaigning, vote pandering, and the limited choice of candidates have led to voter apathy on a scale that threatens the integrity of the whole system.
In the East, new democratic experiments are threatened by a host of problems and forces, including a lack of experience at self-government, age-old ethnic tensions, varying cultural expectations, and continuing disagreement about the nature of human rights.
Around the world, growing numbers of people today have lost faith in their leaders, become cynical about their governmental systems, and rejected the responsibilities of citizenship. The resulting disillusionment has severely limited humanity’s capacity for achieving collective social advancement, attaining prosperity for all, and ensuring widespread happiness.
An alternative to these trends can be found in the experience of the worldwide Baha'i community. Following principles and precepts laid down in the writings of Baha'u'llah, Baha'is have established a distinctive system of global self-governance that both protects personal freedom and safeguards the prerogatives of the community as a whole, striking a singular balance between individual initiative and the common good.
Utilizing a unique combination of freely elected councils and a complementary institution of appointed advisors, the system is in many ways far more “democratic” than the methods by which most parliaments or other representational systems operate. And yet, because of its distinctive procedures and principles, it avoids the processes of manipulation, factionalism, and partisanship that have become unseemly features of other systems of governance worldwide.
For example, the election process at all levels — the Baha'i system functions at the local, regional, national, and international levels — excludes any form of electioneering or nomination. Yet it offers every individual elector the widest possible choice of candidates.
The decision-making process used by all bodies of the Baha'i community is likewise distinctive. Known as “consultation”, its method is nonadversarial, seeking to build unity of purpose by welcoming and encouraging the free expression of views and by striving for consensus based on established principles.
The administrative system of the Baha'i Faith comprises formally established structures that incorporate the benefits of direction by corporate bodies and counsel by wise and experienced individuals. This system consists, on the one hand, of elected councils, operating at global, national, and local levels. Their membership drawn entirely from the people, these institutions are vested by the Baha'i sacred writings with legislative, judicial, and executive functions. The system is composed, on the other hand, of eminent and devoted individuals appointed for the specific purposes of propagating and protecting the Baha'i Faith. These high-ranking individuals, appointed by and operating under the guidance of the Head of the Faith, counsel, stimulate and encourage individual Baha'is and elected institutions. Thus, they play a vital role in assisting community plans, promoting learning, fostering individual initiative, encouraging individual freedom and diversity of expression, while at the same time ensuring the protection of the Faith against schism.
“The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men. The ocean of divine wisdom surgeth within this exalted word, while the books of the world cannot contain its inner significance.”
Both elements of this system are guided by the central governing body of the Baha'i Faith, the Universal House of Justice. The nine members of the Universal House of Justice are elected every five years by members of the more than 180 national-level governing councils worldwide.
Altogether, these institutions form what is known as the “administrative order” of the Baha'i Faith. Developed gradually over the course of the last century and a half, the system is a remarkable development: a principled system of world governance that, without resort to a priestly or ecclesiastical class, serves both to develop and channel the capacities of the individual without impinging on the rights of the whole — and above all else has the demonstrated ability to forge an integrated world community, bringing unified direction to a body of people that is perhaps the most diverse on earth.
Certainly, as a system of religious administration, it stands without parallel. No other world religion, past or present, conducts its affairs through a system that, through all-encompassing free elections, harkens so closely to the concerns of the grassroots while at the same time, because of its basis on divine scripture, provides the explicit authority for steadfast unity.
Beyond its function as a system of religious administration, however, the administrative order of the Baha'i Faith also stands as a singular model for the kind of system of global governance our new age so sorely needs. Indeed, Baha'is understand that the Baha'i administrative order is nothing less than the “charter of a future world civilization.”
The Local Assembly
Perhaps the best way to understand the Baha'i administrative system is to examine its basic unit, the Local Spiritual Assembly. Elected each year in every community where there are nine or more adult Baha'is, the Local Spiritual Assembly performs many of the functions that have traditionally been associated with clergy — and more. Indeed, the processes that underlie the Local Spiritual Assembly can be said to offer a new model for participatory, democratic decision making at the grassroots level.
At the present time, Local Spiritual Assemblies oversee the wide variety of activities that constitute the essence of Baha'i community life. These include the education of children, the observance of holy days, devotional services, study classes, discussions, social events, marriages, and funeral services. Many Local Spiritual Assemblies around the world also sponsor ongoing small-scale educational, social and economic, or environmental development projects.
Local Spiritual Assemblies also perform executive and judicial functions, handling correspondence and money for the community and overseeing the application of Baha'i law in matters such as divorce or disputes between community members.
As with all other Baha'i elected institutions, Local Spiritual Assemblies function only as a body, making all decisions as a group, using the process of consultation in arriving at those decisions. Individual Assembly members have no special authority, status, or power outside the Assembly itself.
Typically, the reach of the Local Spiritual Assembly is defined by the municipal boundaries established by the government. In other words, all Baha'is who live within the boundaries of a particular village, town, city, or civic district are considered to be within the jurisdiction of the Spiritual Assembly of that locality.
The process by which Local Spiritual Assembly members are elected, likewise, is worth describing in some detail, as many of the features of local Baha'i elections are mirrored at the regional, national, and international levels.
The Local Spiritual Assembly is elected each year by secret ballot. In April, all adult Baha'is in the community gather for the election. Those who cannot personally attend are encouraged to submit absentee ballots. After a period of prayer and meditation, each adult chooses the nine individuals that he or she feels are best qualified to administer the affairs of the community.
The qualities such individuals should possess are spelled out quite clearly in the Baha'i writings. Those participating in the election should consider “the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of this process is the absence of a prepared ballot — or of any system of nominations. Instead, every adult Baha'i in the community is eligible for election to the Local Spiritual Assembly.
Those elected to the Assembly need not receive a majority of votes; rather, the nine individuals who receive the highest number of votes are selected. Since every adult in the community is, in essence, up for election, individuals have the opportunity to vote according to their conscience with an absolute freedom of choice. In no other system do individuals exercise such a breadth of freedom in the electoral process.
Although this system defies political convention, it is remarkably effective in practice. The Baha'i writings encourage the election of individuals with recognized ability, maturity, experience, and humility — instead of simply those who might be bold or ambitious enough to run for office. Indeed, the whole emphasis of the Baha'i electoral system is to bring forth leaders who possess qualities of selflessness, intellectual capacity, moral integrity, and wisdom.
Local Spiritual Assemblies also supervise the Nineteen Day Feast, which, as noted earlier, is the cornerstone of community activity and a means for the Assembly to hear directly from the community [see Nineteen Day Feast]. And, although the Assembly is ultimately the final source for decision making in the community, the institution of the Feast is an important component of grassroots governance.
Counsellors and their institutions
Crucial to understanding how the Baha'i administrative order works is to comprehend the role of the counselling institutions. Again, it is perhaps easiest to explain how this corps of experienced advisors functions by examining their role at the local level. But first it is necessary to describe the overall structure and role of the counselling institutions in the Baha'i Faith.
Foremost among the group of advisors serving in the Faith’s multi-layered “counselling institutions” are the “Hands of the Cause of God,” who hold the highest station as appointed individuals. Some 50 individuals have held this title and since no more can be appointed, transferable elements of their duties have been taken up by the Counsellors. Shown here, left to right, are the three Hands of the Cause still living in 1992: ‘Ali-Muhammad Varqa, Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khanum, and ‘Ali-Akbar Furutan. Ruhiyyih Khanum passed away on 19 January 2000. Mr. Furutan passed away on 26 November 2003. High Resolution Image >
Foremost among these advisers are the Hands of the Cause of God. This title has been given to some 50 individuals in the history of the Faith; all were appointed by Baha'u'llah, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, or Shoghi Effendi [see next section for more on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi]. As of 2004, the sole surviving Hand of the Cause, ‘Ali-Muhammad Varqa, was still serving the Faith in Haifa, Israel. In 1968, after determining that no more Hands could be appointed, the Universal House of Justice began to designate a number of mature and experienced individuals as Counsellors, so as to extend into the future the indispensable functions of the Hands of the Cause.
Appointed for five-year terms, Counsellors are assigned either to one of five Continental Boards or to the International Teaching Centre. Those assigned to a Continental Board serve in one of five regions of the world: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australasia, or Europe. The International Teaching Centre, based at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, directs the work of these five Boards. It is composed of nine Counsellors plus the remaining Hands of the Cause.
The Continental Boards appoint individuals to Auxiliary Boards. The members of these Auxiliary Boards currently number some 990, and they are each assigned to cover a specific region within the Continental Board’s area of coverage. At the next level, Auxiliary Board members themselves appoint individuals to serve as their assistants.
In the Baha'i administrative order, the Institution of the Counsellors complements the Faith’s elected institutions at all levels. Shown here is a photograph of the members of the International Teaching Centre in Haifa, Israel, in 2003. The members are known as Counsellors and they and their counterparts at the continental level play a vital role in fostering individual initiative, diversity, and freedom of action in the worldwide Baha'i community.
The members of the counselling institutions at all levels constitute a corps of highly diverse men and women, who seek to inspire and enlighten Baha'is in the application of Baha'u'llah’s teachings in their everyday lives, working to help them realize their full potential. They seek to nurture and advise communities and institutions in their growth and development, working to ensure their proper functioning, and they seek to promote the acquisition of knowledge and capacity at all levels so as to empower the Faith’s institutions to become guiding lights for society at large. Although these servants of the Faith do not possess authority to direct the elected institutions, their advice plays a major role in shaping their plans and in developing Baha'i community life.
At the local level, for example, Auxiliary Board members and their assistants work closely with Local Spiritual Assemblies to offer insight, advice, and encouragement. Drawing upon the experience of working with other communities and their own maturity as believers, Board members and their assistants help the Assemblies to focus on the principles in the Baha'i writings, offer ideas as to how to promote community cohesion, and suggest proven methods for stimulating growth.
Thus working together, the two institutions — the Local Spiritual Assembly and the Auxiliary Board — strive to create an atmosphere of learning and disciplined behavior, characterized by patience and forbearance towards mistakes. They seek to build and maintain unity of thought and action in an environment free of excessive criticism, of backbiting, of conflict and contention, which at the same time welcomes the freedom of expression on the part of every believer.
It is worth noting also that those elected or appointed to Baha'i institutions with few exceptions serve entirely without pay, often offering many hours a month in service to their communities.
The National Spiritual Assembly
At the national level, Baha'i community life is governed by the National Spiritual Assembly. Like the Local Spiritual Assembly, this national-level governing council is elected annually, following the same basic electoral procedures: no nominations are permitted, campaigning is forbidden, secret ballots are used, moral character and practical ability are emphasized, and those men and women who receive the most votes are elected.
Whether at the local, regional, national, or international level, Baha'i elections follow a similar process that seeks to choose spiritually minded leaders from the entire body of believers in the area. Shown here is a Baha'i election in process in Panama. High Resolution Image > At the national level, Baha'i communities are guided by elected councils known as National Spiritual Assemblies. Shown here are the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of South Africa as elected in 2003. High Resolution Image >
The electoral process at the national level is different in one respect. While the local Assembly is elected by all adult community members, the National Spiritual Assembly is elected by delegates, who, in turn, are chosen in “district” conventions. All adult Baha'is are eligible to vote in district conventions, and so the connection between the individual and his or her national-level governing body remains quite close.
In choosing members of the National Spiritual Assembly, delegates may vote for any adult Baha'i residing in the country — once again preserving the freedom of choice that is fundamental to the Baha'i electoral system.
As the Faith has grown, so have the number of National Spiritual Assemblies. In 1954, for example, there were just 12 National Spiritual Assemblies. By 2004, there were 183 National Spiritual Assemblies around the world — in nearly every country.
Just as the men and women serving on Local Spiritual Assemblies oversee Baha'i community affairs within a municipal locality, National Spiritual Assemblies are charged with guiding and coordinating Baha'i activities within a given country. Their activities range from the adoption of nationwide teaching plans to the initiation of large-scale social and economic development projects; from overseeing relations with their respective national governments to coordinating with other religious groups and nongovernmental organizations.
And like Local Spiritual Assemblies, National Spiritual Assemblies benefit from the wisdom and experience of members of the counselling institutions. National Spiritual Assemblies work with members of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, individuals who function on all continents and larger regions of the globe. Just as Auxiliary Board members serve Local Spiritual Assemblies, Counsellors advise, assist, and encourage the work of National Assemblies in consultation and decision making. Collaborating in a spirit of harmony, the two branches elevate public discourse to principled consultation, concerning themselves not only with the laws and regulations of the Faith, but also with the encouragement and embrace of measures that foster individual initiative and a whole-hearted response to the spiritual truths of the Faith.
The Universal House of Justice
As noted above, the head of the Baha'i administrative structure is the Universal House of Justice, the international governing council of the Baha'i Faith. Composed of nine individuals, the Universal House of Justice is elected every five years by the combined membership of all the world’s National Spiritual Assemblies.
The process of election is much the same as for Local and National Spiritual Assemblies: there are no nominations, campaigning is forbidden, and the nine individuals who receive the most votes are elected. As with local and national elections, voters are expected to consider only individuals of recognized ability and spiritual capacity.
The entire election process is a powerful expression of democratic ideals. Although it is an international institution, the Universal House of Justice is nevertheless surprisingly close to the grassroots. The final election of the Universal House of Justice is just three steps away from the local level: every adult Baha'i is eligible to participate in the election of a “district” delegate; district delegates in turn elect the members of their respective National Spiritual Assemblies; and the members of all National Spiritual Assemblies around the world in turn elect the Universal House of Justice. The first election was held in 1963.
Baha'u'llah Himself established the institution of the Universal House of Justice, and it occupies a unique position in the Baha'i administrative order. Baha'is understand that its decision making is unerringly guided by God.
The teachings of Baha'u'llah are the foundation of Baha'i belief and practice. However, the Universal House of Justice has the authority both to legislate on all matters which Baha'u'llah Himself did not explicitly address and also to repeal or change its own legislation as conditions change. This provides Baha'i law with an element of flexibility. If, for example, the development of some future technology poses a moral question which was unknown at the time of Baha'u'llah, the Universal House of Justice would determine how to address that question. In this way, Baha'is believe, the Baha'i Faith will continue to be guided by God until such time as the next Manifestation of God appears — an event which Baha'u'llah said will not occur before the passing of at least a thousand years.
Members of the first Universal House of Justice, elected in 1963.
Like members of National and Local Assemblies, members of the Universal House of Justice have no power or authority on their own. It is the institution of the Universal House of Justice, not its individual members, that is considered to be divinely inspired.
Baha'i Approach to Governance
Ultimately, Baha'is believe, the emergence of a peaceful and just social order animated by moral principle is contingent upon a fundamental redefinition of all human relationships--among individuals themselves, between human society and the natural world, between the individual and the community, and between individual citizens and their governing institutions. In particular, outmoded notions of power and authority need to be recast. A basic reconceptualization of social reality is thus envisioned; a reality that in spirit and practice reflects the principle of the oneness of humankind. To accept that “the body of humankind is one and indivisible” is to recognize that every human being is “born into the world as a trust of the whole”.
Governance is referred to in the Baha'i writings as an expression of trusteeship, as the administering of a trust. Bahá'u'lláh speaks of the governors and administrators of society as “trustees” or the “trusted ones” of God. He also warns leaders that the vulnerable and the poor “are the trust of God in your midst.” The concept of trusteeship implies, in some sense, a covenant between those who are in positions of authority and the members of the social polity that they are obligated to protect and serve. Consequently, trustworthiness is a vital characteristic of governance; it is the source of true accountability. Bahá'u'lláh describes trustworthiness as the “greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people,” and “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world.” “All the domains of power,” He avers, “…are illumined by its light.”
While governance is often equated with government, it in fact involves much more. Governance occurs at all levels and encompasses the ways that formal government, non-governmental groups, community organizations and the private sector manage resources and affairs. Three factors that largely determine the efficacy of any system of governance are the quality of leadership, the characteristics of the governed, and the nature of the structures and processes employed to exercise authority and meet human needs.
In this regard, the Baha'i community offers its own administrative system as a model for study. Baha'is attach great importance to cooperative decision-making and assign organizational responsibility for community affairs to freely elected governing councils at the local, national, and international levels. This hierarchy devolves decision-making to the lowest practicable level--thereby instituting a unique vehicle for grassroots participation in governance--while at the same time providing a level of coordination and authority that makes possible collaboration on a global scale. A unique feature of the Baha'i electoral process is the maximum freedom of choice given to the electorate through the prohibition of nominations, candidature and solicitation. Election to Baha'i administrative bodies is based not on personal ambition but rather recognized ability, mature experience, and a commitment to service. Because leadership cannot be sought in the Baha'i system, it cannot be used as a pathway to power. Decision-making authority rests with corporate bodies rather than individuals. All members of the Baha'i community, no matter what position they may temporarily occupy in the administrative structure, are expected to regard themselves as involved in a learning process, as they strive to understand and implement the laws and principles of their Faith. Significantly, in many parts of the world, the first exercises in democratic activity have occurred within the Baha'i community.