The process of evolution takes place in three stages: random mutation, selection and replication. It’s not a bad model for how new ideas emerge within a large organization like Oxfam. Every week seems to bring a new idea swirling around in conversations and meetings (mutation). Most of those will fade away but a small percentage will get ‘traction’ (horrible management-speak word, sorry) – that’s the selection part. Eventually, the survivors will find their way into the machinery of planning, allocation of staff and money, work plans etc etc – in other words, replication.
Part of my job is to contribute to the random mutation by chucking in new ideas from the outside world and getting into conversations about them. This week it was well-being, which I’ve been blogging on at intervals for some time, and it led to an interesting discussion on the pros and cons of adopting well-being as an organizing principle for development.
Well-being would reconnect us to the lived experiences of poor people. Some aspects of well-being – things like freedom from shame, humiliation and anxiety, may seem fuzzy to economists and the ‘measurement community’, but they are instantly recognizable to poor people themselves, and anyone who has spent time in poor communities. I also find it much more positive, human and engaging than the rather arid and legalistic language of rights and the ‘rights-based approach’, which can sometimes sound like little more than an endless series of complaints, and yet well-being covers much of the same ground as the rights framework.
Well-being neatly sidesteps the polarized pro- v anti- growth debate (see my scepticism on the degrowth movement). It relegates growth to its proper position as a possible means to an end (enhanced well-being), which functions well in some circumstances and not in others. For example, growth appears to increase general life satisfaction in poor countries, but not in rich ones (see graph).
The official world of statistics and measurement is forging ahead on this issue, developing indicators of well-being and quality of life (see my reports from the recent OECD conference on this). We need to understand and if possible shape that process.
Finally, it moves us on from the old dichotomies of North-South, core-periphery, developed-developing etc. Enhanced well-being is a universal goal, albeit achieved in different ways in different times and places.
So what could be the downsides?
Firstly I worry that the concept is still too broad and fluffy, meaning all things to all people. Let it loose in a large organization and soon everyone would just be working on their own pet subject, but calling it well-being. What would you stop doing if well-being became your guiding principle?
That perception of fluffiness could also see us branded as mere ‘lifestyle activists’ divorced from the hard material realities of development and, in particular, government. Many official institutions are still run or heavily influenced by the orthodox economics of growth, returns on investment, incomes and assets. Those all form important parts of the pursuit of well-being, but the concept itself has less resonance in those circles than more traditional frameworks such as poverty reduction.
Or growth-with-equity. For at least the last ten years, ‘growth with equity’ has summed up what Oxfam seeks from international development. Environmental constraints are leading many to question the ‘growth’ bit – quality v quantity, prioritising growth in poor countries etc, but what about the equity part? At first sight, well-being seems a step backwards on social and economic justice, and downplays the genuine conflicts between rich and poor over resources and power – development is not just about win-wins, sometimes it involves a fight and someone (hopefully not the poor and vulnerable) losing. ‘Wellbeing with equity’ anyone?
Which leads me to my final concern – what would our partners in developing countries make of it? Would they recognize it as a more accurate portrayal of their concerns and struggles, or think ‘oh no, Oxfam’s gone northern hippy and lost its edge (and the plot)’?