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The well-being of the nation


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why do successive governments in Jamaica miss the mark when it comes to connecting with the day-to-day 'livity' of ordinary Jamaicans? Is it a case of neglect or just downright ignorance about the plight of the ordinary man in the street, including the poor and the working poor? I would want to suggest that it is neither of the above.

I do believe that most governments want the best for all its people, even though the reality does not always bear out this fact. I am suggesting that both major political parties have been out of touch because they have missed a very important indicator of growth — the well-being of its people.

Measuring well-being is an area of growth that goes beyond the traditional indicator of gross domestic product (GDP). Few countries actually have a national policy of well-being. How was the People's National Party able to measure the Progressive Agenda? And what is the Andrew Holness Government using to measure prosperity? Is it through the usual economic indicators that tell us how much the economy has grown? Is it how many cellphones one person owns, as suggested by one politician?

I want to suggest to present and future governments another measurement that is critical to the growth of a nation — national well-being. Consider this for a moment: What would politics look like if promoting the well-being of all Jamaicans was one of the Government's main priorities?


What is well-being?

In the past some pundits have suggested in the written press that it is happiness that we need to pursue in Jamaica as a national goal. I have no issue with this; however, well-being supersedes happiness. Happiness often refers to how people are feeling moment to moment and does not always tell us about how they evaluate their lives as a whole, or about how they function in the world. Well-being is a much broader concept and includes happiness, but also other things such as how satisfied people are with their lives as a whole, and things such as autonomy (having a sense of control over your life), purpose (having a sense of purpose in life). It comprises objective descriptors and subjective evaluations of physical, material, social, and emotional well-being, together with the extent of personal development and purposeful activity, all weighted by a set of values.

Well-being is a global assessment of a person's quality of life; it is developing as a person, being fulfilled, and making a contribution to the community. The World Health Organization defines quality of life as: An individual's perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns. It is a broad-ranging concept affected in a complex way by the person's physical health, psychological state, personal beliefs, social relationships, and their relationship to salient features of their environment.

Well-being promotes a better society and contributes to other important ends. Research have shown that a happy, satisfied and engaged people are more sociable, active, altruistic, generous, tolerant, economically productive, creative, healthy (physically), and live longer.

Jamaica urgently needs a 'National Well-Being Policy' and an accompanying measurement. The Ministry of Heath should lead this cause by first rebranding itself as the Ministry of National Well-Being (MNaWB) since the aim of a democratic government is to promote the good life — a flourishing society where citizens are happy, healthy, capable, and engaged.


Measures of growth

Measures such as GDP focus on one aspect of life. There are those who believe that standard measures of economic performance and progress are not really suited for policy decisions. An example of the disconnect between economic indicators such as GDP and more general measures of well-being was given in the United Kingdom during an intensive debate about whether a third runway should be built at Heathrow. From a narrow economic perspective the answer was clearly “yes”. The United Kingdom is suffering, relative to other European countries, from its limited capacity for long-haul flights to other parts of the world, especially the Far East. But from the perspective of the well-being of people in West London and surrounding villages living under the flight paths of 1,300 wide-bodied jets taking off and landing every day, economic measures only scrape the surface of what is meant by well-being. Likewise, they fail to tap into the environmental impacts (read: Goat Island and other developmental projects) of increased air travel.

So GDP misses central aspects of what people regard as important. It was not designed to be an overall measure of well-being, so it is not surprising that it is now judged inadequate in that respect. More generally, as we shall see, perhaps economic measures themselves are inadequate or insufficient. After all, contentment, happiness, quality of life, etc, are influenced by more than mere financial wealth or income. The richest person, suffering constant pain from an incurable disease, may well not rate his/her well-being as very high. Likewise, exhaustion of natural resources may lead to short-term benefit, but it will mean the consequent enhanced quality of life will not be sustainable.

There is evidence to suggest that both human and social capital are associated with a wide range of non-economic benefits, including improvements in health and a greater sense of well-being. If this is so, then it is time for the Government to start the dialogue on a National Well-Being Policy. This might be the only hope to save the poor in this country. Let's talk!


Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or