Lining up life and economy to create a good society

Economics, Governance, Inequality, Poverty in the UK, Rights

I did a bit of thinking over the summer. Mulling over ideas such as what is ‘good development’? What is a good society? What is ‘good growth’ rather than just recovery of the old economic model?

And what I’ve come up with thus far is that the answer lies in better alignment between what people and the planet want, and what the economy (and in many instances political processes) serve up to us.

The answer lies in better alignment between what people and the planet want, and what the economy (and in many instances political processes) serve up to us.

Currently, we’re collectively creating a world that few of us (if any) individually want. There’s a chasm between ourselves and each other, and ourselves and our planet.

Right now, people, planet and economy are not aligned

Examples of this misalignment are everywhere: we’ve exceeded three of nine planetary boundaries; and the economy is not working for the majority of workers who have seen no real wage rise, while an increasing share of national income goes to profit, and the pockets of a few at the top.

And to paper over this misalignment, we’ve gone into debt – maintained our consumption levels through borrowing. Oxfam reported on another manifestation of a misalignment recently, highlighting the exponential rise in food banks and growing numbers of people using them – many of whom are in work. Surely this is one of the starkest, most depressing
and terrifying indications of the failure of the economy to meet basic needs.

This is an economy that has given us a growing gap between rich and poor – income inequality in the UK has risen faster than anywhere else. And of course wealth inequality is so much worse, with the richest having assets to spare and those at the bottom not having any savings to turn to in a crisis. This inequality contributes
to further misalignment – many of the rich world’s social problems have been attributed to the growing gap between rich and poor.

Another misalignment is evident in our (inevitably hopeless) attempts to fulfil intrinsic needs with extrinsic activities like consumption.

Add all this together and it is hardly surprising that life satisfaction has become disconnected from growth of wealth. Take account of growing levels of mental ill health and high suicide rates, it is clear that there are some serious problems with our society and economy.

It is unsurprising people see few paths open to them beyond working harder, buying more, speeding up the hedonic treadmill, stressing more and panicking more, with some eventually leaping into the chasm of the misalignment and into riots, protest or hopelessness.

Aligning the economy with people’s true needs

One way to bring about better alignment is to better measure what matters – bring back some equilibrium across pursuit of a wider range of assets, reclaiming the economy. To contribute to this alignment, Oxfam created the Humankind Index for Scotland. We asked the people of Scotland – making a particular effort to reach out to seldom-heard communities – what they needed to live well in their communities. We used mixed methods – street stalls, community meetings, an online survey, focus groups
and a large scale representative poll. In all we spoke with over 3,000 people.

And they told us that health and housing were most important; that good, satisfying jobs were important; that a clean environment, good facilities, transport, education, safety, family and friends were also key.

This feedback from the people of Scotland it show us what a Good Society can be; what good growth needs to entail. It shows us what better alignment will look like – when policy makers match their policies with what matters to people; and when the economy delivers what communities need.

There are places to look for (…) examples of the Good Society already in action. Oxfam sees it in the community organisations we support (…) that value each other for their role in the community, not for what they earn.

This means creating spaces for community rather than consumption. It means jobs that are satisfying, enable work-life balance and deliver autonomy, relatedness and competence. It means protecting and nurturing the environment, rather than simply seeing nature as a source of future profit. And, it means economic growth as a means to an end – serving society – rather than an end in itself.

The future already here

And the exciting thing is, there are places to look to see what this will look like – examples of the Good Society already in action.

Oxfam sees it in the community organisations we support, such as Gal Gael in Glasgow, that value each other for their role in the community, not for what they earn. Organisations that look after each other when there is inadequate support evident from the state or the market.

We see it in the acts of kindness people offer to each other; precious acts which become less common the wealthier we get.

We see it in places like Bhutan, a tiny kingdom of 700,000 people which is trying to make pursuit of Gross National Happiness real, and more important than just pursuing growth of what we buy and sell.

So it is not a great leap into the unknown we’re talking about. We just need business models to catch up and economic and governance structures to extract themselves from narrow vested interests and deliver for the people and planet instead.

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Author: Katherine Trebeck
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.