Human Wellbeing in the 21st Century

About 4 years ago I won a memorable hand of poker at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Casino (the one with the musical fountain display out the front, and which George and Brad robbed in Ocean’s Eleven).  Two red aces and $200 better off, and I’ve not since then allowed myself the chance of losing these winnings by making a return visit.

If I was a gambling man, I would put money on the fact that next time round I’d almost certainly come away empty-handed…

The Bellagio Initiative, a much newer institution than the casino, caught my eye last year not just because of the euphoric memories its name stirred within me, but because of the organisations who had established it, and the mission they had set themselves – namely, the collective pursuit of answers to some of the world’s most pressing and current questions.

This initiative has just published an inaugural report Human Wellbeing in the 21st Century: Meeting Challenges, Seizing Opportunitiesand I would commend it to you, whatever your trade, vocation, or inclination.  Not because the report delivers any particularly ground breaking ideas – by its own caveat it is “not comprehensive, nor prescriptive” (both, in my mind, additional bonus points) – but because it provides an opportune platform, and point of departure, from which to examine many of the international development debates of the moment.

What my daughters will make of a “human wellbeing” narrative in 20 years’ time, from the vantage point of an enquiring mind – and from whichever country they are living in – is hard to predict.  However, I’d be surprised if some of the sentiments expressed through this particular report are not still relevant in 2032.

The report in question contains a quote from a psychology professor named Tim Kasser, who says that “substantial empirical and theoretical work demonstrates that to the extent individuals prioritise values and goals for wealth, status and image, they report lower levels of personal wellbeing, and engage in social and ecological behaviours that can reduce other people’s wellbeing.”

Cloaked, as these various “values” to which the professor refers, might be, beneath competing political, religious, and philosophical persuasions, it is difficult to argue against the premise of what he is saying.  Money, and materialistic gains, we have been informed by various wise folks, do not always bring you happiness.

Image courtesy of http://www.sayingimages.com

The report includes other statements with which you cannot fail to concur.  It suggests, for example, the need for us all to: develop “more effective relationships” amongst one another; not cede to society’s pressures of seeming “not to fail” in our development endeavours; take a more “human-centred” approach; and, above all else, include the voices of those marginalised in society – voices which can be excluded in the delivery of traditional development work.

This is all practical and sage, of course.  If, instead, the report promoted the use of ineffective relationships, or excluding the voices and ideas of the those population groups that development organisations are seeking to serve, or even taking a less human-centred approach in your interventions, then I would suggest you’d have much of your work ahead of you convincing an audience of the merits of such tactics.

The report goes on to make quite sweeping statements about the development community be too “technocratic”.  The inference made by the authors here (based on their summarising of many discussions) is that development is conducted by perceived technical experts in the development sector and that, over time, a gulf has been created between said experts and the communities to whom they are delivering programmes.

As a result, I feel the report actually misses an opportunity to firstly include at least some evidence about what we do know actually works in the field of international development, and secondly, that this technocratic branding seems to me to risk over simplifying things.

There is strong consensus in the idea that we need to take stock of current development practice, to re-shape and re-model the status quo, as the report is telling us to do.  None of this is, nor should be, up for debate.  However, I do think that merely citing the need to move away from a failed and technocratic state of affairs, gives an uneven impression of the impact the development sector has had, over the last 60 years in particular, in terms of addressing rights, injustice, poverty and the environment.

In that time, a blink of an eye in real terms, we have moved a very long way in our understanding about development issues.

We have seen the introduction by governments of free primary school education.  Advancements in the way in which we treat and manage the effects of diseases such as HIV/Aids, TB, malaria and polio have saved millions of lives.

Using market based approaches to development, and bringing small-holder farmers better returns for the sales of their products, we are realising the opportunities which exist to connect and trade on a much more global and fairer playing field.  The rise of ethical consumerism, in more recent years, offering perhaps an insight into future trends which might further result in a more equitable set of transactions taking place at the production, processing and distribution levels.

There is clearer understanding now about the value of such things as microfinance initiatives, which enable people to start up their own businesses, and be more in control of their livelihoods.  The development community is increasingly collaborating not just with the private sector on longer term programmes, but also on the issue of reducing a community’s risk to natural disasters by experimenting with new insurance schemes for people previously excluded, because of their low income demographic.

In this vein, we are testing new models, and expanding innovative new markets.

The empowerment of women has been proven to positively address the underlying causes of poverty and social injustice – click on the picture to read a CARE report explaining more

Across all of such evidence we also now know, definitively, that the empowerment of women, through a more inclusive approach to them in our development efforts, has a positive impact on poverty’s underlying causes.  That women will invest more household income in the healthcare and education needs of their families, than their husbands would do, is now an uncontested statement that can be made.

We know all of these things.  We have the examples that can evidence them, and we also have a better understanding than ever before about the potential power which could be unleashed in the future, at the regulatory and policy level, were the combined forces of private sector, civil society and progressive governments can be harnessed to create a much more inclusive enabling environment across all the world’s economies.

All of which, for me, needs to be recognised, learnt from and not discarded.  Our methods of the past, using the resources we have had, have taken us this far, and in many ways, given this has been one of the first collective societal efforts to really tackle such issues, I think considerable ground has been covered.

In 2012, the topic of resource scarcity, of urbanisation, climate change, inequality, conflict, to name a few, are not to be taken lightly by any means.  Nor could we possibly argue that the issues of governance, of inclusion, of ceding control over things, of respecting the dignity of one another, have been resolved.

This still places us at the foothills of what remains a particularly uphill battle, and hence why I believe The Bellagio Initiative report to be an extremely useful contribution to the debate, and a serious communication tool for anyone interested in it.

We must find new solutions, and new ways of addressing some very old issues, but let’s first ensure we are leveraging from the experiences, and the know-how that does exist across the development sector.

Some of the solutions may not be as far out of our reach as we imagine them to be.

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