Well- being’s social and subjective dimension

Development Policy17 Jun 2009Erick Roth

Sumner in his challenging paper “Beyond 2015”, encourages us to rethink the development policy and reconsider the need, nature and dimensions of MDG’s from the real expectations of poor people instead of donors’ interest. The author points out the importance of debating on the process to promote new targets for post-MDG’s period. The discussion must focus, of course, on how those targets should reflect the real needs of most vulnerable segments of societies.

Poverty is clearly related with quantity and quality of service provision and of course, with resource allocation, social equity, solidarity, and with clean and safe human environment among other well-known conditions that improve people’s better living. Those development ingredients were conceptualized by MDG’s agenda and their indicators are being periodically monitored. Nevertheless, measuring progress from the real need structure of people should be equivalent to take into account additional targets constructed from down to top; a human centered indicators reflecting local or proximal urgencies.

The human well being approach seems to be a good proposal to create new targets locally defined for at least two reasons. First, because it calls for the attention toward the subjective dimension of development, shifting the focus from “what people can do and be to how people feel about what they can do and be”. Indeed, there is relevant evidence derived from psychological research informing that “what people feel (or believe) they can do, has a strong impact on that they will actually be able to be and do” (Sumner, 2009, p.11).

What Sumner suggests is quite similar to Professor Albert Bandura’s (1997) conception of the “agentic” nature of behavior. This approach makes the individual agent of his own behavior through symbolic processes and self-regulatory mechanisms allowing control over thoughts, feelings, motivations and actions, substituting external by internal control. Only when the person (or the group) believes he (they) can produce wanted effects through his (their) actions –says Bandura– he (they) will be capable to develop incentives for that action. In other words, persons guide their lives by virtue of their personal self-efficacy. Belief in personal self-efficacy is the key factor of human agency.

From a subjective point of view, something is a problem only if it is perceived in such a manner. This is a reasonable argument to endorse the idea of developing targets, which takes into account individual or group aspirations, expectations, believes, attitudes and values; that is the subjectivity of involved people. Assuming that poverty is enhanced or maintained only by limited access to goods and services means somebody else (for example the state or NGOs interested in development) have to do things to deliver services, to distribute resources, to improve environment or to recover solidarity in order to develop well-being. However, as was mentioned by Vaitilingam (see The Broker, 2009, issue 12), “governments in both developing and donor countries do not deliver well-being; men, women and children achieve this through their relationship with others in society” (p.7), and I would add, according to their subjective priorities.

In second place, a well-being approach stressing individual or group subjectivity, implicitly stands out the importance of local realities. Allister McGregor from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex stated, in Vaitilingam’s article, that well-being is a profoundly social concept only achievable through the relationship of an individual with others in society. This relationship is only possible at the local level and consequently, decisions concerning targets to monitoring development would rise from people subjectivity, socially determined in the near surrounding.