Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Wellbeing: Not just a luxury for the rich

There are many questions that are often raised by sceptics about the merits of measuring progress, and many of those questions are sometimes difficult to answer convincingly.
Last week I touched on one question I hear often, "So what?... what is the policy relevance of measuring happiness".

This week I turn to another: "This is all well and good for a developed country, but we have more pressing concerns in the South"

This was the focus of Johannes's post "Progress for All" here on this blog on 21 January. So let me add my support to what he said because I don't think we can say this enough at the moment.

Two years ago this week I was in Addis Ababa (or Addis Abeba if you wish) at a big African statistics conference. I was talking to a bunch of Africa's most senior statisticians about the Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies, and trying to encourage Africa to take part. I gave my usual talk and I could tell that although the audience was mostly still awake, their minds were elsewhere and they remained unconvinced about what I was saying. Luckily, I could pass the microphone to a colleague. It was her first time in Africa, her first time out of Europe in fact, and she had been working on measuring progress for all of 2 days. But her fresh enthusiasm for the ideas we were talking about, and for Africa, were evident and the audience took notice.

She explained that she had not known what to expect from her first visit to Africa, and that she had been struck by the friendliness of people, and their happiness in the face of obvious adversity. The smiling streets of Addis were all very different from the frozen faces on the Paris Metro (and yes, line 13 remains awful in case you were wondering ... but I can now cope because I have bought my ticket to Costa Rica!). "Wouldn't it be a pity" she said "if this spirit was lost in the quest for development?".

I could see the symbolic lightbulbs shining over the collective statisticians. All of a sudden they became engaged, and the conversation started to flow among them, while I listened (and also made a mental note of stealing this particular script and using it myself if I was ever invited back).

Yes, Africa has some terrible hardships to battle. And yes, the people aspire to western levels of income, life expectancy and so on. But there are also some aspects of African life that we, in the 'developed' west often seem relatively impoverished in. Strong family ties, broader notions of social capital and so on. Perhaps these things are a hindrance to "development", perhaps they can be an asset. I really don't know. But it would be a great pity if one morning in 10 or 20 years hence, the people of Addis wake up to find they have a Starbucks on every corner, and a plasma TV in every house, but have unwittingly lost some of the richness of being African, because they had not realised they were losing it.

We manage what we measure, so it is important that people in all countries, rich and poor, measure the things that matter. Perhaps the people of a developing country will decide that they are willing to care a little less about their extended family in exchange for a higher GDP per capita. Perhaps they won't. But what is certain is that they may not even know there is a choice to be made until it is too late, unless they have the evidence in front of them. Too often, it seems to me, the conversation about 'development' spends rather too much time on getting the policies right, without asking the more fundamental question "what does development mean?". I suspect I am not alone in thinking that the answer is rather more complicated than " becoming more like us Westerners". At least I hope I am not alone in thinking that.

So no, measuring progress is not a luxury. Its a necessity, and it is more important than anywhere than in countries that are changing, or likely to change, rapidly.



  1. This blog reserves the right not to publish any inappropriate comments.

  2. This is a subject close to my own heart - material well-being is important, but when it becomes the focus of life, we can lose out in terms of happiness. Some notes on research and "what works" here: http://www.appropedia.org/Quality_of_life