The History of the Institute
Founded in 1999, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity initially emerged from a dialogue that began a few years earlier between a number of non-governmental organizations and development agencies who sought to explore the constructive and complementary roles that both science and religion must play in processes of social and economic development.
For the previous five decades, international development theory had generally conceptualized religion as an anachronistic system of belief that was antithetical to science and was an obstacle to development. Such conceptions, however, were part of a development enterprise that had proven largely unsuccessful in its efforts to foster global prosperity and well-being. In the search for more effective approaches to development, many thoughtful voices were beginning to ask whether religion might, in fact, be an essential partner in the development enterprise. In this context, the International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada sponsored a dialogue among leading development practitioners whose work was motivated and shaped by religious insights and commitments. Key contributions to that dialogue were later published by the IDRC in a book titled The Lab, the Temple, and the Market.
In response to this initial dialogue, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity was established as a non-profit organization in association with the Bahá'í International Community. One of the purposes of the Institute was to explore, with others, the complementary roles that science and religion – as co-evolving systems of knowledge and practice – must play in the advancement of civilization.
The Institute’s first initiative was to launch a year-long consultation with prominent development thinkers and organizations in India. Focusing on the present state of development thought and practice, this consultation identified the need for a fundamental reconception of both science and religion in the context of development. How can the masses of humanity be empowered as protagonists in the systematic generation, application, and diffusion of practical knowledge regarding the improvement of their own social and economic conditions? How can this process be motivated and guided by the application of spiritual principles and insights? How must science and religion both be reconceived in order to support these processes?
Some of the insights generated by these deliberations were incorporated into a concept paper entitled, Science, Religion and Development: Some Initial Considerations, which was then presented at a colloquium in New Delhi in 2000. There, participants explored the need to address both the spiritual and material dimensions of human existence in promoting social transformation and identified some areas for further inquiry and action. A secretariat for the promotion of a discourse on science, religion, and development in India was also established. Since that time, it has coordinated the expanding activities of the participating organizations.
Building on the Indian experience, the discourse on science, religion, and development was extended to other countries. With the collaboration of a task force, the Institute organized a series of seminars in different regions of Uganda. At these seminars, academics, government officials, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations, gathered to discuss – within the context of Ugandan society – the issues raised in the Institute’s document. Participants later formed working groups to explore how the discourse can affect such areas of human activity as education, economic activity and environmental resources, technology, and governance. A series of documents was prepared to be presented to the government. A video entitled Opening a Space: The Discourse on Science, Religion, and Development, documenting the Ugandan experience, was produced in 2006.
In Brazil, eleven leaders of thought were invited to respond to the Institute’s concept paper. The outcome was a book, titled Ciência, Religião e Desenvolvimento: Perspectivas para o Brasil (Science Religion and Development: Perspectives for Brasil), which was used around the country to stimulate discussions in seminars. In 2005, in Malaysia, Social & Economic Development Services (SEDS) together with the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue organized two nation-wide colloquia on science, religion and development and published the results in a book. Activities of this nature are continuing in the two countries, as well as in several others in Latin America and Asia.
Based on these initial experiences, the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity learned that many people – including many university students and young professionals – are interested in exploring the concepts the Institute is working with, and are interested in developing the capacity to contribute to contemporary discourses through a framework that draws on insights from both science and religion. Therefore, the Institute initiated another line of action focused on raising capacity in university students and young adults to contribute to the discourse on science, religion and development, as well as to other discourses related to the betterment of society. The Institute now conducts a series of undergraduate and graduate seminars in a growing number of countries for this purpose.
At the same time, the Institute continues to explore methods, approaches, and instruments with which it can contribute directly to a growing range of contemporary discourses, such as discourses on the advancement of women and discourses on governance.