Thursday, November 4, 2010

Wellbeing as a focus in development: prospects and pitfalls?

Sarah C. White
Ever wondered what ‘wellbeing’ really means, and why so many people are talking about it?  If so you are in good company. 

In the last few years talk about wellbeing has spread like a rash in public policy circles, but very few people offer a clear definition, and when they do there’s a whole range of others leaping to dispute it. 

When you think about it, there’s nothing particularly surprising about this.  Dispute and debate are at the heart of all things ethical, and the ‘well’ within wellbeing makes it clear that values are at its centre.

The WeDNetwork panel on wellbeing at the DSA this year doesn’t try to fix a definition of wellbeing, but looks at the different ways people understand it, the political charge these carry, and the prospects and pitfalls of taking wellbeing as a focus in international development. 

Wellbeing and the Big Picture

Like most of the buzzwords we adopt in development, wellbeing became an issue in the north before being exported to the south, although Bhutan leads the world in putting Gross National Happiness at the centre of public policy.  What is distinctive about wellbeing is that it makes you ask questions about the bigger picture beyond the frame of development itself.  And it’s an area where the south may be able to give the north more than a run for its money. 

Approached with an open mind, wellbeing cannot be circumscribed within the conventional boundaries of programme-bound thinking.  Recent research in India and Bangladesh, for example, has shown how local discourses of wellbeing are moral discourses, which draw heavily on a religious worldview as their frame.   This doesn’t just mean that having time for prayer or religious practice is important to people, although this is often the case.  It means rather that ideas of wellbeing invoke a broader, or deeper, sense of a moral order that grounds for each of us and our life together, and even for development, the proper way of things.  

Wellbeing and Values: the Collective and Political

Seeing wellbeing as grounded in an understanding of the order of things identifies individual wellbeing as deriving from the collective, rather than the other way around. This helps guard against a danger of the current revival of interest in values in development.  An example of this can be seen in the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which seems to draw a rather simple link between personal values and behaviour and political outcomes. The personal is seen as the way to the political.  Instead of politicising the personal, as in feminism, however, the efficacy of this lies in personalising the political. 

However positive the motivation, the political outcomes of this may be far from progressive. As some of our panellists argue, there’s a danger that such an approach can translate to more, and more intrusive governance.  Responsibility is shifted from the state to the individual.  Geopolitics is obscured in an overly cognitive rendition of the everyday.

Measuring wellbeing: new avenues of research

For wellbeing to have political legs in international development there needs to be some form of measurement.  New research in Zambia and India is working to achieve this, tracking people’s wellbeing and poverty pathways and seeing how these interact over time. 

We hope that this will show the practical value that a focus on wellbeing adds in development intervention.  But also that it makes space for us to be challenged by the understandings of wellbeing that animate our respondents’ life-worlds.

Sarah White is Director of the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath

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