Doing what matters: Placing Wellbeing Economics at the heart of the Dutch Africa Strategy
The Dutch Africa Strategy is expected to be published this summer and will likely lead to a heated discussion on how to place sincere and mutually beneficial partnerships within the prevailing Aid and Trade Agenda. The real question, however, is how the Dutch government will ensure its policies actually serve the interests of local communities. Knowledge Broker Joscha Betke dives into this question based on his research on wellbeing economics in Amsterdam. ‘Measuring what matters’ and placing communities’ well-being at the heart of the Africa strategy will be crucial to ensure its success.
In December 2022, Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Liesje Schreinemacher, announced to African ambassadors that development cooperation with Africa should foremost be guided by sincere and mutually beneficial partnerships. This is encouraging when compared to the 2022 new policy strategy ‘Doing what the Netherlands is good at’, in which trade and strategic partnerships clearly dominate the development cooperation agenda. ‘Private-sector development, economic cooperation and trade as key to achieve inclusive prosperity’, however, remain the focus of the Netherlands’ vision on the Africa Strategy.
To ensure equitable development impact beyond economic cooperation, the recently published opinion letter by The Dutch Advisory Council on International Issues (AIV) and conclusions from consultation rounds that Partos held with African and Dutch CSOs, highlight three elements that are crucial: (i) meaningful participation of African citizens and civil society organisations, (ii) local ownership, and (iii) policy coherence. These are well-intentioned ambitions for the Dutch Africa Strategy, but how do we know if the foreign trade and aid agenda will actually entail mutually beneficial development cooperation and meaningful engagement of the local civil society?
Looking beyond trade cooperation and economic growth
Already in 2008, some of the greatest economic minds of our time, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean Paul Fitoussi, argued that economic growth, formal employment and structural transformation of the economy, while essential, are not sufficient to explain, or achieve, human flourishing and societal welfare in its most basic sense. They challenged the economic growth paradigm that still rests at the heart of many development policies, which assumes a ‘trickle down’ of economic gains and embraces Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth as a yardstick for societal progress.
Fifteen years later, researchers, civil society groups and (inter)governmental organizations, such as the Organisation of Economic Development (OECD) and the Council of the European Union, reiterate the idea that we need to move beyond economic growth towards an economy that places the inclusive and sustainable improvement of citizens’ well-being at its heart – in short: a Wellbeing Economy. But what exactly does this mean?
Associate Professor in Economics of Wellbeing at the Governance and Inclusive Development research programme (GID) Dr. Nicky Pouw explains that the vision of a Wellbeing Economy proposes a bottom-up democratic approach of creating policies based on the needs of citizens. On one hand, this entails actively engaging with citizens and involving local civil society actors in the policy process, including less formal groups like community initiatives and social movements because these actors can best voice the needs of local communities. On the other hand, the assessment instruments informing policymakers need to reflect the interdependent and sometimes informal nature of economic interactions and different dimensions of human well-being (material, subjective and relational). To capture this holistic view of societal progress in their policies, policymakers should start using alternative economic indicators, such as social cohesion, access to public goods and social services. This can be done by gathering data in a bottom-up process, co-developing new indicators with citizens and embracing new assessment frameworks that reflect a pluralist understanding of human well-being.
Pluralist visions of societal progress see multiple theoretical and methodological viewpoints as valuable in understanding human development. These alternative perspectives are not new and confined to the realms of philosophers and academics in ivory towers of the Global North. Indigenous knowledge systems in the Global South for instance have long embraced alternative ways of thinking about human flourishing, like African Ubuntu, Latin American Buen vivir, or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy. What these philosophies have in common is a more holistic perspective of human progress and the relationship between humanity and nature, as well as the importance of collective responsibility for the common good. These understandings encourage us to rethink the way economies serve citizens and how economic development strategies should be aimed foremost at improving societal well-being as defined by people themselves. So what does this look like in practice?
Wellbeing Economics in Practice: Lessons from Amsterdam
While there are many frameworks and theoretical debates on how to conceptualize human wellbeing into the prevailing economic growth model, practical guidance and best-practices are rare due to a lack of implementation. Looking at how to practice wellbeing economics, policymakers can seek inspiration from recent developments in the Netherlands. Latest research into local municipal development in the City of Amsterdam shows how a human well-being approach can be operationalized.
In 2020, the City of Amsterdam decided to go into a social dialogue with citizen initiatives to explore tools that measure success in terms of social and ecological outcomes in order to guide the city’s post-COVID recovery. Different ideas and frameworks, such as Doughnut Economics, Degrowth and Community Wealth Building, were explored to connect on-going civil society initiatives with the municipal administration for a local economy that promotes citizens’ wellbeing. Researchers and community representatives used citizen dialogues as a method to develop an assessment framework that displays the community’s well-being and can serve to inform local policymaking.
The initiative was driven by the passion of local community leaders within one of Amsterdam’s neighbourhoods to connect the social impact-driven activities of the community (e.g. the community garden, child- care facilities, the local food bank etc.) to the municipal development strategy. Specifically, residents and researchers co-developed a so-called Community Wellbeing Dashboard, which is an assessment framework that displays the current state of well-being of neighbourhood residents and areas of improvement.
In the dashboard, a range of indicators that are deemed relevant by the residents, such as the access to community services or housing, social cohesion and ecological sustainability, identify the current state of citizens’ material, subjective and social-relational well-being. This bottom-up developed policy tool is designed for local administrators and urban development professionals to identify policies catered towards the needs and demands of citizens living in that neighbourhood.
Measuring what matters
These community well-being assessment frameworks are the first step towards an economic policy that is more citizen-centred, respects local ownership and improves foremost the livelihoods of communities. Economic activities with a social or ecological impact that are currently under-valued and un-recognized in the predominant economic paradigm, such as care work, community volunteering or social impact entrepreneurship, would score high on these alternative assessment frameworks. In addition, the procedure leading up to these measurements serves to provide a forum for policymakers, private businesses and citizens to exchange ideas and bridge perspectives.
The Africa Strategy presents the perfect opportunity to place well-being at the heart of Dutch development cooperation for mutually beneficial partnerships to be actually accountable to the communities that they should serve. In aiming for more equitable relations between Dutch and African partners, citizen-led and wellbeing-centred economic policies can lead the way. If we do not want to lose the connection with the most vulnerable, we need to make sure they get represented in official indicators too. Therefore, building on existing civil society initiatives, organising community dialogues between citizens and local administrators and integrating new bottom-up well-being assessment frameworks are important steps towards an inclusive and equitable development policy. As Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi concluded in their high-level commission report “what we measure affects what we do”.
Concretely, the new Africa Strategy can continue strengthening the role of CSOs by structurally including both African and Dutch CSOs into the policymaking process. While African citizen-led initiatives can voice the needs of local communities, Dutch CSOs can act as facilitators between local civil society actors and development programme implementers. Further, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can initiate the development of alternative economic assessment frameworks and indicators where African citizens are in the lead and Dutch policymakers become accountable to their needs. This would allow the Netherlands and its African partners to embrace economic growth, trade and aid programmes as means in the pursuit to achieve human flourishing, so that “Doing what we are good at” becomes “Doing what matters”.