Wellbeing is more than just being happy. But what exactly is it in its entirety and how can we measure its levels within our societies? Allister McGregor, is a Professor in Political Economy. He uses a human wellbeing framing to understand why issues such as poverty and inequality persist.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a specific goal for improving human wellbeing (and health – SDG 3) but the overall framework for the SDGs is inspired by a broader conception of human wellbeing. It includes goals that address the material conditions that people face (having enough nutritious food, shelter, clean water), their relationships in society (gender relations and inequality  – “leave no-one behind”) and they also consider how we might ensure that the state of the planet is such that there is the possibility of wellbeing for people in the future (sustainable development – climate change, life under the water, life on land).

Although the term ‘wellbeing’ is very powerful and is used widely in international policy circles, the term often suffers from poor or weak translation from rhetoric to policy and research practice.  This is particularly so for the international development community.  For many decades now, development studies scholars have flailed around, anguishing about the neo-colonial character either of their detached study of the lives of poor people in poor countries or their role in the service of the development industry. Many policy makers and academics in international development remain stuck in their traditional and subservient paradigms of poverty studies or livelihoods frameworks.

Although the concept of wellbeing often is seen as being anodyne, it actually offers the prospect of a more universal and critical approach to the study of sustainable progress and the political and policy challenges associated with it. The notion of wellbeing can be profoundly political in its application – in particular it can bring to the fore the relations of power, at different level of abstraction (from beliefs and values to arrangements of coercion and consent), that shape the systems that produce and reproduce our currently profoundly unequal and unsustainable global distribution of wellbeing (see Devereux and McGregor 2014).  More than five years ago the authors of the Final Report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress issued a challenge to scholars and policy makers to work towards the meaningful operationalization of a substantial concept of wellbeing. It is time for development studies scholars to get ‘on board’ with this challenge and to take a renewed and serious look at what wellbeing has to offer as a concept and a methodology for a more emancipatory and sustainable route to development.

For more information, see ‘Measuring what matters: The role of well-being methods in development policy and practice.’

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