Recently the Bellatio Initiative, a new global consultation focusing on well-being and development was launched. But what does this concept of well-being represent and what can we gain from a focus on wellbeing rather than poverty in development?
In the face of famine, floods, and fires a focus on “wellbeing” in development can seem misguided at best, cruelly inappropriate at worst. For many years the development sector has talked about the economy, poverty and material goods, not well-being. Historically, economists have seen economic growth as the way to not only raise average incomes but also eliminate absolute poverty; which has been seen by many to be the ideal end goal of the development process. But is this elimination of poverty and focus on material measures really sufficient? Increasing numbers of development experts don’t think so.
So What is Wellbeing?
We all have some intrinsic awareness of what makes us feel “well”. Unsurprisingly, when studying global well-being, Gallup finds that when evaluating their lives, people across the globe tend to give disproportionate weight to income and health; thus these appear to be key constituents of individual well-being.1
The Wellbeing in Developing Countries Network views wellbeing as a process, and argues that what people understand by wellbeing is context-specific. They identify three key aspects of wellbeing; material, relational and subjective. The material aspect refers to factors such as food, bodily health and shelter, which are often closely related to economic measures. The relational aspect concerns social interaction, and involves power, identity and connections. The subjective aspect concerns cultural values, ideologies and beliefs and also people’s own perceptions of their situation.2
For the scientists among us, an instant aversion to so subjective-sounding a concept as well-being may arise. However, Gallup believe they have found an effective measure of wellbeing, which combines two dimensions: evaluative and experienced. The evaluative component asks respondents to assess the overall status of their lives using an 11-point scale, then to predict where their lives will be five years in the future. The experienced component includes more specific questions about respondents’ emotional state. For example, respondents are asked whether they smiled a lot the previous day and whether they were treated with respect all day. Their report on global wellbeing classified respondents as “thriving,” “struggling,” or “suffering,” according to how they rated their current and future lives on a ladder scale based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale.3
Wellbeing is therefore increasingly being understood by different bodies in a way which allows objective measurement alongside a holistic approach.
Wellbeing and Development
But why might a focus on well-being be important? How can such a formulation be justified with regards to international development, and how can this concept be operationalized in a way which will improve aid policy and practice?
The utility of well-being arises in part from key differences in how different stakeholders in international development view poverty. In my work with Afrinspire4 this summer I have seen how the concept of “abject poverty” is used colloquially by Ugandan development experts and communities alike to connote a degrading state of being, in which an individual is unable to fulfil their potential. This is a foreign idea to the western world, which talks about poverty in very different terms, using the more objective concepts of absolute and relative poverty. Thus there frequently seems to be a stark contrast between the western focus on material measures, perhaps prompted by the increasing emphasis on the need for empirical data, and a more holistic approach which focuses on an individual’s quality of life. These differences in view affect communication between countries, and which development strategies work on the ground compared to those which don’t. Perhaps the developing concept of well-being is more reflective of an African viewpoint? Including the relational and subjective components of well-being may allow us to understand an individual’s situation more closely and make more accurate predictions. How people relate to each other and what they feel they can do plays a strong role in what they will actually do.
In addition, the concept of well-being has a number of benefits when compared to current crude economic measures of poverty:
- It is positive: focusing on what people can rather than can’t do, be or feel. It is also respectful of the individual due to its focus on self-determination. This contrasts strongly with current themes in development of seeing people and places in terms of their problems, deficiencies or that which they lack.
- It is holistic: it sets conventional material indicators in the context of factors that matter to individuals and affect quality of life.
- It recognises the importance of social and personal relationships and peoples’ own perceptions, and thus can be considered more person-centred than previous measures.
These broad themes have been eloquently expanded on by James Copestake and Allister McGregor amongst others, to describe how wellbeing can be applied in the aid sector. This had led to a coherent call for a consideration of wellbeing in development, an idea growing increasingly accepted, as evidenced by the Bellatio Initiative.
What is the relevance of this concept with regards to post-2015 development policy?
If the concept of wellbeing is considered relevant for international development, this could have significant implications for development policies after 2015. No longer phrased in terms of lacking capabilities or resources, policies following the well-being paradigm would draw on positive psychology and pay more attention to subjective and relational domains of human wellbeing than the existing MDGs. McGregor and Sumner, (2009)5 suggest future policy would need to particularly consider how these forms of wellbeing relate in the spheres of human values, relationships, norms and behaviours.
Economic growth would no longer be seen as the end-point of development, but instead considered in the context of social and personal factors. The use of economic measurements alone (such as GDP) might well be replaced by composite factors, drawing on a range of measures, or reports and evaluations might be sub-divided to consider each dimension of wellbeing, with none being seen as more important than the other.
I would even question whether the concept of wellbeing might not be extended even further, away from the wellbeing of the individual towards that of the planet. Perhaps a composite indicator of development should include a consideration of planetary wellbeing, measured by consumption of global goods or generation of carbon. In such a case one could see a situation in which a nation could be considered over-developed, as those nations we now see as most developed would lose “points” for negatively affecting the planet, whilst doing little to advance their own happiness; there is mounting evidence that ever-increasing in advanced consumption does little to enhance societal well-being, and may even impede it.
Whilst the field of wellbeing in development is as yet still rife with controversy, increasing progress in being made in tying down definitions and measurements of well-being. The Bellatio Initiative will produce a range of fascinating reports. However, perhaps of most interest of all will be their work on wellbeing, due to its significant implications for future development policy. I and many others will certainly be looking on with interest.
Felicity is a medical student from the UK who is transferring from Cambridge to Kings this year. She is also incoming Joint National Coordinator of Medsin.
All those interested in the future of development and the role of philanthropy can contribute to the discussion at www.bellagioinitiative.org.
4 http://www.afrinspire.org.uk/ – in the process of being replaced
Find Out More:
Beyond Money; Towards an Economy of Wellbeing, Diener and Seligman, Psychological Science. 2004 (5:1) http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/5_1.cfm
Planetary Wellbeing: Prosperity without Growth; Economics for a Finite Planet by Tim Jackson, 2009 ISBN: 9781844078943
Global Wellbeing Initiative: http://www.globalwellbeinginitiative.org/what-we-do.html