Opening statement on Bellagio Initiative

Employment & Income31 Aug 2011Steffie Verstappen

The Broker’s contribution to the Bellagio Initiative consists of an online debate on a series of questions related to the promotion of human wellbeing in general, and the transformation towards a global sustainable and inclusive economy in particular. We warmly welcome you to participate in this online debate by commenting on articles and blog posts, or by contributing your own blog entry. For more information, or to submit your blog entry, please email our editor at steffie [at] [contributions have closed]

We have briefly summarized the framework below, followed by a series of questions.

Human wellbeing is what matters most

The real challenge of our time is achieving human wellbeing for all and living well together in a world system in which we experience scarcity, complex risks and great inequalities. Development agencies and philanthropic trusts have been focusing on poverty reduction based on the orthodox economic growth model in which profit maximization and efficiency are leading, as emphasized by traditional international development agendas. When adopting the concept of human wellbeing as our starting point, we find that development should no longer be about reducing poverty but, rather, about fundamentally confronting the origins of the unequal distribution of human wellbeing that currently exists in the world.

This is framed in terms of an understanding of sustainability that goes well beyond the natural environment, by explicitly including aspects of global social and political sustainability. Recognizing that the purpose of development is the promotion of human wellbeing helps to focus our discussion. At the same time, it opens up and changes the agenda of issues that are at stake. This focus offers a new, powerful perspective with a great potential to confront the challenges that humanity is faced with today. If we adopt this significantly different perspective on what we are doing, how does this impact the way we look towards the future?

Towards an inclusive economics

Starting from this perspective, it is interesting to regard human wellbeing in the context of a radical change in economic thinking towards an inclusive and sustainable economics. The way in which our global economy is governed, and which aspects are given more or less importance, is a factor that hugely affects the realization of individual as well as collective wellbeing. As mentioned above, economics traditionally focuses on the pursuit of growth, efficiency and profit maximization and tends to assume that human wellbeing will naturally follow. This perspective overlooks the fact that our wellbeing is, apart from strictly economic factors, largely based on social and political circumstances.

What we need is a notion of economics that moves away from the pursuit of endless growth and goes towards an alternative and more inclusive economics. An economics that takes into account the social and political aspects of human wellbeing and goes out of its way to accommodate these. A paradigm shift! What would a new development model based on human wellbeing look like?


Participate by contributing your 400-word blog entry on one of the questions below.

Question #1: Economics as if people mattered

Modern economics is arguably one of humanity’s greatest inventions. But while the current approach to economics has served some of us well, others claim that it has now become part of the problem. When we consider lessons learned from economic growth in the past, it quickly becomes clear that economic strategies cannot succeed without taking into account equality of opportunity. Persistent inequalities structurally undermine the positive effects of economic growth on sustainability and overall wellbeing.

[Question] Should growth end for us to truly prosper? To what extent can and should we change the rules of the contemporary economic game to support us in our efforts to live well together in the 21st century?

Question #2: What we measure is what we wish for

Our policy thinking has been misled by what we measure. The extent of development and wellbeing is not merely demonstrated by an increase in per capita income. Worse even, there is a great disconnect between Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and overall social progress. Back in 1968, Robert Kennedy eloquently said: “Gross National Product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. Nonetheless, our understanding of prosperity remains closely linked to the indicator of GDP growth. Instead, human wellbeing should be the central goal of economic performance and social progress and this should be reflected in the indicators that we use to measure progress.

[Question] What would be the relevant criteria to meaningfully measure and monitor the inclusive-ness of our global economy and our collective wellbeing?

Question #3: Social conflict: friend or foe?

The antithesis of living well together, one could argue, is conflict. In this regard, conflict over the distribution of resources in our global society can be seen as a testament to our failure to find ways to live well together. Nonetheless, the power struggle that precedes any significant societal change will likely also occur in the context of moving towards more inclusive forms of economic governance.

[Question] How should we evaluate the occurrence of conflict in moving towards a new notion of inclusive economics and how can agencies and foundations act on this? What role can or should popular social movements in both the North and the South claim in this process?

Question #4: Does the development status quo need to go?

Today, leading aid models still focus on economic growth and poverty reduction. Most aid agencies and philanthropic trusts apply this thinking to their policy making and practice. Alternatively, the perspective that we propose views wellbeing as a deeply social concept: men, women and children achieve wellbeing through their relationships with others in society. This reality questions the value of traditional aid models and, hence, the focus of much aid work.

[Question] How could development agencies and philanthropic foundations be encouraged to let go of orthodox development models and embrace the human wellbeing model instead? What interests are at stake? What are the implications for development policy and practice if human wellbeing is explicitly adopted as its central goal?

Send your contribution to our editor at steffie [at] [contributions have closed]