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Wellbeing not Economy.

By John Woods and Peter Doran.

Even the American economist, Simon Kuznets, who developed ‘Gross Domestic Product’ (GDP) as a ‘crude’ aggregate measure of economic activity in a time of emergency during the 1930s, warned that it was never intended as a long-term approach to capturing information on important dimensions of progress such as welfare.

From Bhutan to Ecuador a new conversation is emerging with a view to generating a more holistic picture of economic and social progress. Moving ‘Beyond GDP’ summarises the macro-economic dimension of these policy debates, while the language of wellbeing has been taken up to sum up individual and societal aspirations.

Typical domains used to measure wellbeing include income, employment, health, education, social connectedness, civic engagement, environment, subjective wellbeing, transport and culture.

For just over a year, the QUB School of Law and the Carnegie UK Trust have been convening a high-level Roundtable to draw up recommendations on a framework to place wellbeing at the heart of governance in Northern Ireland. Roundtable members were drawn from the highest ranks of the civil service and from civil society, academia, the private sector and the main political parties.

The Roundtable’s deliberations and recommendations address four high-level themes:


A new narrative for governance in Northern Ireland: a call on the Northern Ireland Executive to join with civil society in identifying a new narrative with a focus on societal wellbeing;


An outcomes-focused wellbeing framework: A practical and accessible outcomes-focused Wellbeing Framework for the Northern Ireland Executive’s future Programmes for Government.


Citizen Engagement: Implicit in the Roundtable’s recommendations for a Wellbeing Framework is call for a transformation in the quality of evidence-based policy deliberation within government and in collaboration with other stakeholders, notably through Local Government and Community Planning.


New Ways of Working: The Roundtable’s recommendations are draw inspiration from emerging initiatives on Open Government, outcomes-based approaches (‘Inspiring Impact’) to policy design and delivery, and the opportunities for participation opened up by new technologies and social media.

The intellectual origins of the Roundtable can be traced back to the influential Report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009) co-chaired by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. The Report’s findings – underscoring the limitations of our over-reliance on aggregate measures of economic productivity such as GDP – emerged just as similar lessons were entering the mainstream media in the wake of the global economic/financial crisis. The ‘Beyond GDP’ discourse also resonates with long-standing conversations within the global environmental movement, stretching back to the work of the Club of Rome on ‘limits to growth’.

In developing our thinking about wellbeing, we have been influenced by the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. For Sen development is ultimately associated with the realisation of human freedoms. He is not only concerned with the categorisation of individual functionings (e.g. literacy, health, mobility, ability to reason) but with the decisive factors, notably freedom and equality, that mediate an individual’s access to opportunities to complete an autonomous and valued life path.

Sen was among the first to understand how the lives we value are only loosely associated with access to commodities. At the root of the wellbeing agenda is a radical idea: not all satisfiers of human aspirations can be reduced to an economic ‘algorithm’ or monetary value.

Sen and Nussbaum’s understanding of wellbeing also has important political insights for post-conflict societies, including opportunities to link wellbeing to the cultivation of conditions for democratic reasoning, engagement and autonomy. The former PSNI Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, drew attention to the links between wellbeing and conflict in 2013 when he identified a number of longer-term issues that must be addressed for those communities who feel left behind and where a deep sense of grievance is keenly felt. He referred to high suicide rates, high rates of health inequality, and low educational achievement. •