by Sarah Davidson, Carnegie UK Trust

This blog was first published on Reform Scotland.

It feels almost unimaginable now, 4 weeks into lock-down, but on March 9 I travelled to Paris to spend the day at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The occasion was the publication of “How’s Life 2020”, which charts whether life is getting better — or not — for people in its 41 member and partner countries. The topic for discussion was how we define and assess progress in the “wellbeing” of populations and societies.

Since that launch event, awareness of the various dimensions of community and societal wellbeing — and the tensions that can exist between these — have come sharply into focus in an unprecedented way. The questions about what matters to us; what we value now and in the future; what our Governments measure, balance and prioritise; what evidence informs this decision-making, and how much say we have in that process, are suddenly immediate and urgent. The answers are going to matter a great deal in the days, months and years ahead.

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of the Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, whose members were the eminent economists Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. This asserted the value of Governments shifting emphasis from measuring units of economic production to measuring societal progress, expressed in a set of economic, social, environmental and democratic outcomes. This idea of “societal wellbeing” means everyone having what they need to live well now and in the future. It includes having a sense of community and a support network of family and friends, the ability to contribute meaningfully to society, and the scope to set our own direction and make choices about our own lives.

Over the decade since, the OECD has been at the forefront of the development of frameworks at a global level to measure social progress through its Better Life index and publications such as “How’s Life?” Closer to home, the Carnegie UK Trust has actively supported UK jurisdictions to develop wellbeing frameworks to guide their policy making and to help with the assessment of priorities and trade-offs. That was why I found myself on the platform at the OECD’s Paris Headquarters in March, debating what the 2020 statistical update had to tell us.

The headlines were that life has generally improved for many people in OECD countries over the past 10 years, but inequalities persist and insecurity, despair and disconnection affect significant parts of the population.

Highlighted data included the following:

  • More than one in three people would fall into poverty if they had to forgo three months of their income;
  • One in 11 people do not have relatives or friends they can count on for help in times of need;
  • Less than half of the population across OECD countries trust their institutions.

Panel speakers noted that, while material prospects seem to have improved in many countries, environmental and social prospects have not. Policy makers were urged to take more account of people’s experience of social connectedness; their empowerment; their sense of agency; their environment, and to give these factors equal weight with material conditions and overall economic performance.

These insights are not new, and are expressed in the so-called “Capabilities Approach” developed by Amartya Sen and codified by Martha Nussbaum in 2000. This has been an important contribution to our understanding of the broader factors that make for a good life. Reading Nussbaum again today, her Capabilities brought home to me quite how much our current situation is sharpening the focus on the essential building blocks of our individual and community wellbeing.

  1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length.
  2. Bodily health. Being able to have good health.
  3. Bodily integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place.
  4. Senses, imagination, thought. Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason.
  5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to grieve at their absence, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger; not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear or anxiety.
  6. Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life.
  7. Affiliation. Being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.
  8. Other species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

Six days before the publication of “How’s Life 2020”, the OECD was one of the first global institutions to call how serious the economic implications of Covid-19 could be. In this country, as in many others, the debate is increasingly being framed by commentators as a battle for supremacy between the competing demands of population health and economic recovery. There is growing evidence that the harms caused by loss of income and job insecurity will indeed be significant, particularly for those already most disadvantaged in our society. At some point, there will no doubt have to be a reckoning with what are fiscal and economic policy interventions on an unprecedented scale.

As we move into the hoped-for phase of downward trends in new infections and deaths, economic considerations will become an increasing preoccupation for governments. It is critical that we do not allow this economic focus to obscure all that we have learnt during this period about the importance of the other dimensions of our wellbeing as individuals, communities and as a society. Dimensions like connectedness; the environment; our ability to have control and influence in our lives; equality.

Now, more than ever, policymakers need to be able to refer to holistic frameworks such as the National Performance Framework in Scotland, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in Wales, and the Programme for Government in Northern Ireland, to guide decisions about the future.

These frameworks can be particularly valuable when it comes to understanding the complex relationships between different outcomes and often superficially competing priorities. Data collected also shines an essential light on inequalities between population groups, and between top and bottom performers. The “Wellbeing of Future Generations” Private Member’s Bill introduced into the Houses of Parliament by Lord John Bird can be a vehicle to talk about how this approach might be applied at UK level. Carnegie UK also advocate for the adoption of wellbeing frameworks at city and regional level.

At times of national crisis, we understand that Government has to direct the population far more than would normally be tolerable in a democracy, and we grant them licence to do so. For now, we appear to be very largely obeying their injunctions to stay at home, shut our businesses and workplaces, and teach our own children.

However, it is important that we recover our sense of agency quickly when the shutters start to go back up, and that we can assert our right to have a voice in shaping the national response. Because we understand more deeply now what matters to us. We have been afforded sight of what it really means to live well ourselves, and with others, and have been forcibly reminded of the limitations of headline economic measures when it comes to considering our progress as a society.

Originally published at on April 29, 2020.