LONG READ

A Wellbeing Government is the Way Forward

Wellbeing Governments Meeting Edinburgh 2020 – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Prioritising ‘wellbeing’ makes sense, in our personal, social, political and international lives. The same process brings all these areas together. What is good for one is good for the other. And vice versa. A holistic approach which considers the whole life, the whole body, and the whole of society will bring the maximum degree of agreement, consensus and wellbeing possible. This also applies to Wellbeing Government.

Mrs Thatcher’s remark that “there is no such thing as society”, represented the Conservative Party’s strain of individualism or Thatcherism, a sink or swim society. This seems very much alive within the ranks of the Republican and Conservative Parties today. Since Thatcher, there have been two major political attempts to change the narrative.

Tony Blair’s ‘Respect Agenda’, which emphasised the rights and responsibilities of society members, had a core based on the ideas of the Communitarianism, popularised by the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni. He held that humans are essentially social animals who cannot thrive without strong communities. It was a philosophical movement that sought to find new ways of protecting communal life against the onslaught of individualism, without relying on a too-powerful state.

David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, announced in 2010, had the following objectives:

  • give communities more powers;
  • encourage people to take an active role in their communities;
  • transfer power from central to local government;
  • support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises; and
  • publish government data (open/transparent government).

Unfortunately these promising beginnings never flowered, they were overtaken by the austerity agenda, and were eventually criticised by Labour as being a cloak concealing small state Conservatism.

Current severe globalisation problems should be fertile ground for drawing governments into a wellbeing approach. The Coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency are raging throughout the world, and both require a global, wellbeing response. Within the United Kingdom, rising levels of poverty, inequality, criminality, democratic deficit, and divisive opinion are blighting society and reducing wellbeing.

Wellbeing Governments

At least five governments have committed themselves to collaborate in working towards Wellbeing Economies, to progress towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and to address pressing economic, social and environmental challenges.

  • Scotland has a National Performance Framework with wellbeing at its heart.
  • New Zealand adopted its first wellbeing budget in 2019, based on a Living Standards Framework rooted in wellbeing indicators.
  • Wales has appointed a Future Generations Commissioner, and has put a Future Generations Act into law, passed by the Senedd.
  • Iceland has Indicators of Wellbeing which guide Government decision-making.
  • Finland’s Prime Minister has announced that her government is implementing an Economy of Wellbeing.

Besides these five nations, many other nations, cities and regions around the world have adopted or are experimenting with the Wellbeing approach across all or part of their policy portfolios. To name five more, out of 75 known cases, Germany, Amsterdam, Cost Rica, Kenya, and Edmonton in Canada.

There is now an organisation based in Edinburgh, The Wellbeing Policy Alliance (WEAll), which assembles guidance, experience and advice in their Policy Design Guide, ‘How to design economic policies that put the wellbeing of people and the planet first’. And there is another organisation, the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership (WEGo) which is a collaboration of national and regional governments promoting the sharing of expertise and transferrable policy practices, which represent the five Governments mentioned above.

What’s wrong with our present economic system, and why is a different approach needed

Growth in GDP is traditionally seen as a good thing, and the single most important objective of Government economic policy. This is because it is widely understood to show how well a nation is performing economically and how well citizens are doing, in comparison with other nations and with its own past. The higher this growth rate, it is suggested, the better is the standard of living the population are enjoying, and the higher the tax revenue the Government can collect.

Incredibly, world-wide GDP growth has averaged around 3% per annum over recent decades, or around 2% per head of population. In terms of constant 2017 dollars, the world economy has grown from 50 to 130 trillion dollars since 1990 (World Bank data). This has many good aspects, in pulling some people out of poverty, but there is a dark side. The OECD has acknowledged the limitations of GDP as a metric:

“if ever there was a controversial icon of the statistics world, GDP is it. It measures income, but not equality, it measures growth, but not destruction, and it ignores values like social cohesion and the environment. Yet governments, businesses and probably most people swear by it”.

The independent report, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, for HM Treasury, states that:

“GDP does not include the depreciation of assets, for example the degradation of the natural environment… in recent decades eroding natural capital has been precisely the means the world economy has deployed for enjoying what is routinely celebrated as economic growth”

The capitalist system is supposed to operate for the benefit of humankind through the workings of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, the price mechanism, whereby productive resources are drawn to activities which are deemed profitable as a result of consumer demand. This system is flawed in ways far too numerous to mention here. Suffice to say:

  • It has led, in conjunction with extensive world-wide democratic deficits, to the massive inequalities we see everywhere in the so-called western democracies, with people exploited everywhere. The world’s richest 10% (around 630 million people) were responsible for over half of cumulative carbon emissions between 1990 and 2015.
  • It has led to the prioritisation of consumerism, with its extensive waste and negative externalities being ignored in production, distribution and supply operations and decisions, so that the natural world is continuously and increasingly degraded to the disbenefit and ultimate destruction of everyone on the planet.

Both our democracy and our economic system need major reforms to halt the progression of massive inequality and environmental degradation. Unregulated or poorly regulated private enterprise, and weak or self-serving policy-making and decision-making processes, are responsible for much of the havoc.

“Most people believe that governments only serve the interests of a few, and that capitalism in its current form is doing more harm than good. In G20 countries, 74% of the public want their country’s economic priorities to move beyond wealth creation to focus more on human wellbeing and ecological protection” (Edelman Global Surveys).

“The current economic system is unfair, unsustainable, unstable and unhappy……..Building Back Better must be designed to deliver collective wellbeing: quality of life and flourishing for all people, and sustainability for the planet …….Social justice on a healthy planet” (The Wellbeing Economy Alliance – WEALL).

Writing in Prospect, Nigel Crisp poses the question whether Aristotle was not right when he advocated that “… health and human flourishing go hand-in-hand …”.

What can be done?

In their report ‘Failure Demand: Paying to fix what we continue to break through economic choices’, the Wellbeing Alliance explain how climate change would be addressed in a wellbeing economy:

“In a Wellbeing Economy, environmental costs would be fully incorporated into the pricing of natural resources and be counted as genuine liabilities to the wellbeing of future generations on the balance sheets of governments”.

Central to a Wellbeing Economy is the measurement of economic success in terms of achieving the wellbeing of citizens and the protection of the planet’s resources for other species and for future generations.

The high-level goals for a wellbeing economy, according to the Wellbeing Alliance ‘Vision Statement and Policy Design Guide’ are:

  • Connection (a sense of belonging, and institutions serving the common good),
  • Dignity (everyone has enough to live in comfort, safety and happiness),
  • Fairness (justice in all its dimensions),
  • Participation (Citizens are engaged in their communities) and
  • Nature (a restored and safe natural world for all life).

There is not one blueprint, the shape and priorities across different countries and communities would differ according to local choices. But a wellbeing approach might reduce activities that increase GDP but damage collective wellbeing (such as oil production, a fossil fuel which damages the planet, and advertising, which makes people want more and makes them unhappy).

Progress towards Wellbeing Economies

At the heart of the wellbeing approach is the ‘Framework’, a set of criteria by which to assess and judge performance of policies or courses of action. The success of wellbeing relies on a strong and extensive participatory and collaborative approach by all stakeholders and those potentially impacted, and agreed rules about implementing the method and the outcome. This is why the democratic context of wellbeing is vital.

The recent decision of the Scottish Government to withdraw its support for the new Cambo oil field is an interesting example where a traditional GDP-based economic decision would be to proceed with the oil field, on the strength of the contribution to the economy and the job creation, but a Wellbeing approach may well have influenced the change of position.

Westminster

On Tuesday 30 November, following an e-petition, ‘Shift to a Wellbeing Economy: put the health of people and planet first’, a debate was held in Westminster Hall, introduced by The Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. Prior to that, a debate pack had been produced by the House of Commons Library, Climate Goals: A Wellbeing Economy.

Introducing the debate, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said:

“… Beyond the climate emergency, there are many other reasons to move beyond our current extractive, exploitative and growth-addicted economic system: tackling inequality, stopping the destruction of the natural world and preventing future pandemics, to name just three.

Crucially, the discussions in and around the COP26 summit remind us that those issues cannot be separated and siloed. If we keep decimating the natural world, we will not meet climate goals. If we do not put equality and justice at the heart of climate action, we will not make the shift to a greener and fairer economy. Pandemics, meanwhile, in the words of some of the world’s leading scientists, are:

“a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost.”

Many colleagues will be well versed in why GDP growth has always been a terrible measure of a nation’s economic progress … patterns of economic growth have generated significant harm over recent decades. That includes rising inequality, not just catastrophic environmental degradation, which itself hits the most vulnerable the hardest”.

Helen Whately, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, answered for the Government. She said that the Government agreed with much of what had been said, and was doing quite a lot already. She pointed out that the Government had recently revised the Green Book, which provides guidance for devolved administrations and independent organisations on how to incorporate environmental and social criteria into the assessment and prioritization of Government spending.

The final word went to Caroline Lucas:

“I appreciate the Minister’s warm words, but there is a vast gap between what she [Helen Whately] is saying and what the Government are doing … A report comes out from the Treasury called ‘HM Treasury Outcome Delivery Plan’. It is the key departmental document setting out priority outcomes and activities. It has just one paltry mention of climate and just one reference to decarbonisation. It makes no mention at all of biodiversity, but it has 17 mentions of growth. The Government are still subsidising fossil fuels annually to the tune of around £12 billion, and there is still on the statute book a duty to maximise the economic recovery of oil and gas”.

Finally

It is hard to imagine the current Conservative Government, with its strongly held individualist, freedom-orientated, small-state policies, embracing the wellbeing concept, which has some similarities with the social democracies of Scandinavia. Hopefully, a new UK administration will see the benefits of wellbeing achieved in other countries, and adopt the approach.


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