well-being v 'growth with equity': what are the pros and cons?

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.

Strengths:
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 life satisfaction v gdpones (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)’?

Any thoughts?

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Comments

12 Responses to “well-being v 'growth with equity': what are the pros and cons?”
  1. Simon

    I think it comes down to how one looks at the use of finite resources and the commons and why we think competition is the way to justify the use access and use of resources. From this context it is very hard to think of fairness and equity. This may change though when the west is on the receiving end for the first time in centuries.

  2. Diane

    I love this concept of well-being – I probably am an old hippy but I think we in the developed world have also much to gain from enshrining this into our indicators of how we are doing. If we did, we might find equity follows naturally. I believe Bhutan has the principle of “happiness” built into its governing framework – new legislation has to pass the happiness test – so why not well- being – it’s not too far out for me. And I doubt very much if anyone could make the charge of “lifestyle activists” stick to Oxfam, given their track record.

  3. I find your examples of well being still very development jargon. Working in rural Guatemala with an electrification project, it struck me how life is in a village without any electricity. No television, no movies, not a lot of music, no social life after dark. A lot of dark, by the way, 12 hours of it. No fridge, no cold coke nor cold beer. At least not for everybody. Bringing television to the countryside is the kind of project you will not find a donor for, but the lack of television might be one of the reasons why people leave their village to get a real life in the city.

    I am working on a piece arguing for fragmentation of our objectives. Why do we want to put everything into one development indicator? why don we accept that each one of us has simultaneously different objectives that compete with each other: the right to education and the right to play, the fun of going to a party and the pride of having a Mercedes.

  4. Dominic

    I took a break from writing a presentation about ‘rights-based approaches’ to read this blog, and had not really considered the term to be ‘arid and legalistic’ before. In fact, I thought it was bit too fluffy unless it made reference to specific rights (rather than assumed universal rights), e.g. property, tenure, access etc. Oh hang on, I see what you mean.

    Perhaps Sen’s ‘capabilities’ approach is a good place to start? I particularly like the way it assumes well-being is built on some foundations of rights, freedom and self-determination. It does not assume that everyone wants to be rich, but also allows for people to make the transition from subsistence if that is what they wish to do. In my work with forest communities, they seem to be offered a ‘use it or lose it’ gambit: either become market actors or lose your rights to the local resources. Their expressed notions of well-being may be paradoxical (mobile phones: yes, roads that will bring in migrants: no), but in a way they are trying to slow things down, to allow matters to develop at their own pace. They know their children will have a different life to their elders – the first generation to do so for hundreds of years – but that does not mean that the whole community should be dragged kicking and screaming to work in the gold mine.

    I agree that this is not always a win-win issue. When we empower the poor we disempower the oligarchs who would exploit their labour and resources. Sometimes justice involves redistribution. However, in many cases the exploitation has occurred in the context of market and institutional failure. Win-win outcomes are still possible for sensible agents that follow the rules, but in a perfect world free-riders will be punished.

  5. John Magrath

    Some aspects of well-being are perhaps the most important pillars – even goals – of “development”, like dignity, respect, confidence. How those things are enhanced, or degraded, isn’t fuzzy – it’s the stuff of politics. Bhutan’s a good case in point, though not for the reasons Diane cites. “Happiness” there is defined – and reserved – largely for native Bhutanese; over 100,000 descendants of Nepali immigrants have become refugees having declined orders to wear Bhutanese dress in public and speak Dzongha.

  6. An interesting post. I am sure you are aware that the concept of wellbeing or more the term “live well” is emerging as a very important framework for reconceptualising development amongst indigenous movements in Latin America and particularly in Bolivia. Bolivia’s new constitution has said that creating a situation in which all its citizens can “live well” is one of the primary goals of the State. By living well, they mean not living at the expense of your wider community or at the expense of the planet. The best explanation in English is probably here http://www.boliviaun.org/cms/?page_id=621 The growing enthusiasm for the concept worldwide especially amongst social movements does suggest it is gaining “traction” but it also clearly needs to be fleshed out further not just in statistical measurements but also policy proposals. Do you know anyone good working in this area? In April 2010, Bolivia is holding a Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change (http://cmpcc.org) at which one of the working groups will be on living well. For those who are interested in the issue, this would be a good working group to engage in. This doesn’t necessarily mean having to attend the conference physically as there will probably be possibilities of virtually participating too.

  7. Simon

    Nick there seems to be a lot of work on wellbring. Right Relationship-Building a Whole Earth Economy is a good place to start. It will mention the Earth Charter and other info.

    I certianly don’t think anyone other than right wingers would think it airy fairy.

  8. Mia

    It is not really fair to suggest that ‘well-being’ is inherently any more fluffy than ‘development’. Obviously, as debate emerges there is a strong process of clarifying the meaning and application of ideas of well-being. But the sort of academic work that sometimes feels a bit impractical as you move into the world of specific action – policy, planning and implemetation – is starting to inform thinking and action in the mainstream / real world – and not just in northern hippy NGOs (sic)!!

    I am working with a Finance ministry in an African country that is bring well-being analysis in as one of several means of monitoring changing vulnerability. The Sarkozy Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress also gives an important perspective on understanding well-being as an integral part of understanding economic and social change – important for many reasons, and distinctly un-hippy.

    So… perhaps you are being deveil’s advocate, but your piece on well-being possibly reinforces (rather than addresses) some of the common misgivings and misconceptions around well-being.

  9. John Magrath

    Mia, when you’re ready, please let us know what your well-being analysis contains (and what it doesn’t) and how it works/will work in an African country. It sounds interesting. (Won’t the choices you make be ultimately political?). Best wishes, John.

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