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Is Wellbeing collective or individual? Some answers from Scotland

July 12, 2012
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The debate on wellbeing often veers towards the happiness of the individual. Based on her pioneering work in Scotland, Oxfam’s Dr KT photoKatherine Trebeck (right) argues instead that we must see (and define and measure) well-being as an essentially collective aspect of life.

In 1972, in a famous speech likened at the time to the Gettysburg Address, union leader Jimmy Reid spoke to students of the University of Glasgow, and explained how people who feel they have no real say in their future or their own destinies become alienated; they feel anger and angst at being victims of ‘blind economic forces beyond their control’.

People clearly want and need a say in processes that impact their lives. They want something different to the consumption-orientated and distribution-blind measure we currently use to assess our national prosperity, Gross Domestic Product. The apparent widening of the gap between what people want and what political leaders deliver risks perpetuating the disenchantment and alienation that Reid warns is so harmful to individuals and communities.

So in a small, but hopefully embryonic initiative, Oxfam is putting people at the apex of policy making. In the Oxfam Humankind Index for Scotland, rather than simply adopting the views of think tanks, academics or other ‘experts’, and rather than using arbitrary weightings for respective components, the composition of the Humankind Index is a direct reflection of the views and priorities of the people of Scotland. Oxfam asked almost 3,000 of them (see pic) what they needed to live well in their communities (focusing on collective assets), making a particular effort to reach out to seldom-heard communities and creating time and space for deliberation, discussion and debate.

humankind workshopThis generated a set of priorities that were weighted to reflect the relative importance of each factor of prosperity relative to the others. The resulting Humankind Index is an example of modern democracy; giving people a say in the direction of society and the nature of the economy. Only by distilling the demands and ideas of local people will policy makers be able to adhere to the views and priorities of their constituents.

But this was not an exercise in asking people to list their every whim, shopping list or personal angst and then demand that policy makers respond. The emphasis was on asking what people need to live well in their communities in a deliberative and participatory manner that moves beyond individual wants to what their communities require.

A selection of quotes from participants reveal that people we spoke to readily recognised the needs of those around:
 Without good health you cannot work and [you cannot] help your family and community.
 A secure place that people can call their own, control access to and build a life from.
 A stable network of supportive, caring, loving relationships to encourage, console, enthuse and otherwise support people through to having life and living it to the full.
 Enough greenspace to allow them and theirs to have fresh air. Play areas for children and pets.
 The key issues for people in [our community] is in provision of secure, worthwhile employment opportunities.
  [We need] an economy that supports everyone.
 Some stuff to do – activity clubs instead of using drugs and alcohol; community centre (archery, football, pool, dancing, squash)…Having somewhere local to socialise, cafe, Pub, restaurant, etc.
 Access to education for all ages. Literacy and the ability to engage in social dialogue are critical.
 Ability to know neighbours and be able to help and be helped

Clearly, this was not about individual happiness per se or life satisfaction for individuals – it never sought to create a happiness or wellbeing index that aggregates each individual’s assessment of their own satisfaction. Amartya Sen warned that people can bear adversity cheerfully. But that doesn’t mean there is no adversity, nor that we should ignore the inequalities that shape the circumstances of deprived communities. Creating the Humankind Index is about addressing that adversity, putting prosperity gaps and inequalities at the centre of policy making.

The Oxfam Humankind Index therefore does not demand that policy makers seek to alter people’s inherent pleasure or anxiety or satisfaction with their lives. This is determined by factors such as genetics, can be undermined by life occurrences beyond the control of policy makers (such as losing a child or a spouse) and there is ongoing debate in the literature as to whether individuals have a ‘set point’ that is not particularly amenable to policy intervention anyway.

Instead, in asking people what they need to live well in their communities the Oxfam Humankind Index focuses on real wealth (which, incidentally, once meant ‘the conditions of wellbeing’) and assets at the collective level, rather than each person’s happiness. It offers a more direct road map for policy makers, highlighting areas where policy intervention is required for a more sustainable and just society. It is a tool for making Jimmy Reid’s ‘blind economic forces’ the servant of the people, not the other way around.

And (because it’s worth reposting), here’s that sweet video on wellbeing in the real Scotland – forget Trainspotting……

8 comments

  1. Does the work Oxfam is doing in Scotland link at all with Oxfam Hong Kong’s work on responsible well being that also aims to move away from individualistic rights based thinking and place more emphasis on social aspects of well being?

  2. Excellent post. My gran lived in Glasgow and as a kid I visited her during the summer and we often saw Jimmy Reid on TV and I heard about him from my uncle who worked in the Clyde shipyards. Jimmy Reid was a great man and I was very much influenced by him. So lets hope this experiment of yours gathers momentum. We do need a new mindset that challenges the supposedly immutable imperatives of the market and capital – especially when markets and the financial system are going bonkers as at present – so we need to think differently, ask different questions and collectively act on the answers.

    A few years ago I was on a UNDP assignment examining the famous Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque country of northern Spain for the lessons that developing countries might take on board. I heard that ordinary member-workers were always asked what they wanted in terms of employment, and one of the main requests was for plants to be located quite near their homes, so that people could easily walk to work, get home for lunch with their kids and families, and otherwise not waste time and money driving or bussing to some industrial park miles away. This desire was largely acted upon, which helps to explain why almost all of the factories and plants in the Mondragon group were deliberately located in the valleys near to the main population centres. Crucially, this location actually required a lot of additional investment to be made compared to locating a new plant on some industrial park way out of town. Some serious money went into minimising pollution, beautifying the plants with attractive designs and construction materials, landscaping companies were brought in, lots of trees were planted, park areas for employees were constructed, and so on and so forth. The Mondragon cooperative member-employees thought it was worth it to be so close to home, even if it might meant profits were used to finance the additional investment. However, any orthodox economist would say these Mondragon people were nuts: you locate your plant in the lowest cost location no matter how much the employees hate this. Especially today, so the argument goes, prospective employees should shut up and consider themselves lucky that ‘job creators’ are going to bring them a job……

    I hope we hear more about how people can articulate their diverse needs and requirements outside of the box, and hopefully then eventually secure some of them in the manner of the Mondragon cooperators.

    Milford

  3. Don’t forget ‘trainspotting’!! For wellbeing to be useful it isn’t always about the ‘sweet’ stuff, its got to explore the dark side also. Renton and Begbie had their their ideas of what they needed to live well in their communties too. We can’t ignore those issues. Putting wellbeing into the reality of community contexts, identities and conflicts is vital. Humankind is a great initiative that politicians need to get their heads around.

    To see the momentum on the global scale see the Bellagio Initiative http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/

    1. Never noticed your resemblance to Begbie til now, Allister….. Only point I was making was that the video provides a nice counterpoint to the prevailing images of your homeland – twee (Highland Games, heritage etc) or grim (Jimmy Boyle, Trainspotting)

  4. Hello. Good post about important stuff. Glad to see green space is on the list as humans need to reconnect as part of nature. Two questions then. How are the rest of nature’s needs incorporated? And out of interest why did you not use the already existing Happy Planet Index?

  5. Hi Clare, thanks so much for reading the blog and for your reply. The ‘rest of nature’ is indeed a crucial factor – living within our planetary boundaries is key. The HKI does not speak to this directly, but we frame it as something to be pursued within planetary boundaries (have a wee look on the Doughnut Economics blog).
    In terms of the Happy Planet Index, one of the important differences between that and ours (despite size of coverage!) is that the Humankind Index very deliberately comprises those factors which the people of Scotland identify as important to them, and the weightings reflect the relative importance of each compared to the others (as opposed to an even split or some other arbitrary weighting).
    Hope that helps!
    Thanks Clare.

  6. Hi Katherine. I posted, 3 months later I remembered I posted. Thanks for your response and the tip re the Doughnut economics blog.

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