The pursuit of well-being: evidence from four countries

Development Policy09 Sep 2010thebroker

According to the WeD research team, well-being arises from the interaction of what people have and what they can do with it – and what they think and feel about that. Applying this perspective in detailed empirical research on the persistence of poverty in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and Thailand, the researchers focused attention not only on why some people don’t have enough of what they need, but also why some cannot improve their situation – and how they cope with such conditions.

The studies reveal recurring patterns in the struggles of poor people. In seeking to establish employment and livelihood strategies from which they might pursue well-being for themselves and their children, the poor typically face three options:

  • They can invest their scarce resources of time, labour and loyalty in relationships that provide some security in the pursuit of well-being in the short term, but that may entail greater and sometimes exploited dependence on others later.
  • They can migrate to seek conditions that they believe will better allow them to achieve well-being. But they often do so without the money, skills or relationships that would make migration successful.
  • They can turn to illegal or socially unacceptable means to pursue well-being. But they run the risk of violence or social and legal sanctions.

By highlighting the social relationships that shape these choices and flow from them, the well-being research offers explanations for the persistence of poverty.

For the first type of response, the study of Bangladesh affirms that for poorer members of communities, borrowing remains a necessity and that ‘friends, relatives and neighbours’ represent the major category of lenders. Investment in relationships with kin, friends and neighbours is necessary because this group constitutes a major source of security for most households.

But while these relationships are important in themselves for people’s well-being, they can also explain why some households find it difficult to escape poverty. Indebtedness and obligations can result in material burdens on individuals and households, or can represent social and political constraints on what they can and cannot do in their struggles for well-being.

For the second type of response, the study of Ethiopia draws attention to a particular group of female migrants within the country. These women, often widows and divorcees, cited the need to escape the difficult relationships and oppressive attitudes in rural communities as among their major reasons for migrating. But it was apparent that migrating to the city was not a miraculous solution to their problems and that they often faced different but equally difficult and exploitative relationships as they struggled to achieve even the basics in urban life.

The third type of response is illustrated by a comparison of Peru and Thailand. They are the wealthiest of the four countries, but each is notable for the high levels of material inequality and regional imbalance that have accompanied their development. Peru has a history of people being mobilized to violence – through the Sendero Luminoso insurrection – being a challenge to inequality and exclusion.

Thailand, in contrast, actively manages a national ideology that emphasizes ‘Thai’ values of acceptance and moderation. The research suggests that this ideological campaign may have played an important part in assuaging unrest and in helping Thai society cope with its growing levels of material inequality.

But the study also shows that Thailand is experiencing not only widening material inequality but also a growing gulf in aspirational inequality. While the country’s rapid development means that some people can pursue highly sophisticated, globalized and materially rich lifestyles, others can no longer realistically aspire to anything like this. Indebtedness is extreme in some communities and is reported as a major source of ill-being.

Such aspirational inequality challenges the ideological management that, for a long time, constrained dissent in Thailand. And as the country has grown, political tensions have been greatly exacerbated, as demonstrated most recently in the protests of late 2008.