If they're happy, do we know it?
Reposted with kind permission by the London International Development Centre (LIDC).
Well-being for development. A certain level of touchy-feely-ness is almost inevitable around this topic, yet I do think that more research in this area is crucial if we are to work towards the creation more effective policies that respond to real needs of diverse populations.
A few weeks ago I attended the Development Studies Association’s annual conference in the lovely city of Bath. The two-day event gave me the chance not only to catch up on developments in areas I work on, but to find out more about some other, less familiar topics. For this reason I took the opportunity to attend two sessions on well-being in development. It is an area about which I know little but was interested to find out more about.
The definition of what constitutes a high level of “well-being” is disputable, but generally it is concerned with the social, economic, psychological, and spiritual state of a group or individual. It is a theme the conference hosts, the University of Bath, has championed since the beginning of the century. They argue that it provides a better indicator of progress than traditional economic outcomes, presenting a holistic approach that offers an “alternative to an economistic understanding of development, focusing on the policies and processes that give opportunities for people to live well”.
Moves towards a multifaceted analysis of poverty, looking beyond purely income-based measurements are not new. Multi-dimensional poverty measurements look at a range of factors that affect a person’s level of destitution, including access to education and healthcare and levels of empowerment.
The UNDP’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), published since 2010, complements income-based measures with a raft of national data from across the world. The concept of using well-being in development takes a multidimensional approach beyond the measurement of national-level indicators and weights and includes subjective assessments of quality of life as perceived by the very people who are being assessed.
As one can imagine, the measurement of subjective opinion is not without its difficulties. Determining the reliability, validity and coherence is an issue for researchers. The noise-to-signal ratio is high and the individual’s mood prior to taking a survey on well-being influences results.
OECD guidelines on how to measure well-being emphasize its importance in complementing, rather than substituting, other social and economic outcome measures. Specific factors such as religious or secular holidays, the weather, or life events such as marriage or the birth of a child can all impact on the responses given on any particular day.
I will not attempt here to explain the methodological considerations that must be incorporated into any well-being assessment (have a look at the OECD document if you are interested) but it is worth noting that, in spite of the challenges measurement generates, well-being is increasingly used in policy-making across the globe. Recent research in this area in the UK looks at work/life balance, education and skills, civic engagement, social connections (relational well-being), and environmental quality.
Well-being in development interests me both as a way of incorporating the environmental, and thus sustainability issues, into rankings of developmental progress, and also its acceptance of complexity and diversity in what constitutes a good life.
Research is open to the criticism that any attempts to measure the nebulous concept of happiness are doomed to failure. The talks I attended in Bath examined relational well-being – the impact social relations have on an individual – and though I understand from an academic viewpoint this may be of interest, my impact-focused brain struggled to translate the results of studies in this area to public policy. In spite of this my interest in the topic was piqued.
Given its subjective focus, a certain level of touchy-feely-ness is almost inevitable around this topic, yet I do think that more research in this area is crucial if we are to work towards the creation more effective policies that respond to real needs of diverse populations. Even with the challenges any measurement of well-being faces, I applaud attempts made by academic to define a poverty in ways that go beyond income and welfare measurements and will be keeping an eye out for more work on this in the future.