Lebohang Liepollo Pheko tells how wellbeing means different things depending on where you are looking from.

The idea of promoting wellbeing economies has been gaining traction, especially among a few governments in what is commonly called the Global North but is more accurately described as the minority world. These governments recognise that the status quo is failing and are actively recalibrating their ideas of what a good life is. While laudable, one of the missing pieces in their venture is how it addresses the relationship with the minority world’s interest in doing better beyond its own backyard. 

Discussing alternatives, cleaner planets, electric cars, walking cities, more community-centred living without considering the ongoing damage that these same nations have wrought across the majority world in the  south of the planet seems disingenuous and unneighbourly in the broadest sense. 

There is a chasm in qualitative and quantitative needs between countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and South Africa and wealthy minority countries.

In response to this I recently co-led a commissioned, six-country research study on alternatives to global domestic product (GDP) in the minority world. There is a chasm in qualitative and quantitative needs between countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and South Africa and wealthy minority countries. This is not because black and brown people are “happy to be poor” – a racist trope often masked by its use to signify resilience – but because the concrete conditions and structures of their economies differ vastly, as do the lived experiences of community, interdependence and care ethics. 

When asked, for instance, about mindfulness, a common practice promoted for wellbeing, some respondents stated that yoga and meditation were expensive luxuries that require mats and equipment that are not a priority. Others indicated that they would rather speak to a neighbour or a friend rather than get lost in their thoughts. On the other hand, research findings from Vietnam indicate that the priorities for wellbeing included dignified housing including concrete floors, solid waterproof ceilings and indoor ablutions. This is a reminder that geographic context is extremely important and regional differences can create entirely different climatic, linguistic, topological, historical and other variances. 

Many others raise issues related to their treatment by their relationship to the minority world. One respondent suggests that for them to feel that they belong, they need to recall that they come from a long line of people of the earth, pastoralists and do not see where mainstream economics or even more progressive economics can place them without viewing them as an agricultural commodity. Another laments government policy saying that for them, the level of exports that are made are not commensurate with the levels of earnings. They state that as their national currency is devalued through austerity, debt repayment conditionalities, they themselves also feel devalued and disrespected by all the economic forces at play. And yet another observes that many of the prominent thinkers, including those of the majority world, have attended western institutions like Harvard and been initiated into “Goldman Sachs thinking”, that is  hostile to them. 

Ideas like degrowth, wellbeing economics, and postgrowth are all broadly drawn from thinking in the minority world by western scholars in the academy. This is palpably reflected in the world view of much of the literature. The ongoing shifts towards multi polarity such as the rise in prosperity in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) needs to influence the scope of alternatives and who determines which alternatives work for all of us. 

It calls into question who can define or propose what a good or meaningful life is. In fact it begs the question: who are “us” and, where do they derive the mandate or legitimacy to determine that “we” should all be more “mindful and more conscious of ‘our’ carbon emissions. While alternative and more redistributive economic thinking is welcome in these fractured times, much of this ideation makes very little reference to the historical and current manifestations of colonial and extractive practices of the minority world towards the majority world. 

Given so much evidence of the deficiencies of the current paradigm, there are many  reasons why  a  definitive shift seems  inevitable. Yet the shift is also tricky given a world  where even the ideas behind radical change and rethinking are primarily also coming from the source of the problem. Very few have theorised in depth about the  cost of “doing better” for the majority world. The climate debt and ecological burden that has been violently and painfully unleashed on Morocco, Libya, Mozambique and Pakistan is a reminder that good intentions, without active, restitutive economics and policymaking, are  of little material use to the broader global populations including those least culpable for the damage.  

But not all is bleak. There are slowly growing streams of Wellbeing Economics and Feminist Wellbeing Economics emerging from the majority world. These iterations can be viewed as a related, but distinct streams of the Northern-based wellbeing and degrowth movements. 

Feminist Wellbeing Economics is embedded in an intersectional analysis exploring how different systems of power, and access to power interact and impact on different groups in society, such as those based on race, class, gender identity, migrant status and geographical location. It also examines access to, and distribution of: economic resources; indicators of human well-being; gendered patterns in wages; the dignity  of those wages and the fundamental importance of unpaid care work to every facet of market production.

Alternatives to GDP must recognise that meritocracy is as real as the Easter Bunny.

This is a repudiation of the neoliberal dogma that our individual positions are mediated not by individual rugged hard work, bad choices, or some lotto draw, but by historical contexts of power, politics, extractivism that have been largely shaped by a minority discourse and continue to pervade over the majority world. Alternatives to GDP recognise that meritocracy is as real as the Easter Bunny. One would think this was obvious and yet a lot of the literature assumes false universality and unearned authority to speak loudly on behalf of humanity.

So it  comes down to politics and a willingness to re-imagine. If we  measure different things we  will get different results and this has deep  implications for corporates’ deep and ravenous pockets. What would it mean to place a  requirement that companies  provide  jobs that are  enjoyable and dignified? This essentially  means redesigning capital and redesigning production processes. GDP also lends itself to a “league tables”  approach to economic growth by comparing countries that, as mentioned, often have deeply variant contexts and economic processes.

Not only does this approach ignore hugely differing contexts of different countries – including  within countries for example – rural/urban –  it highlights that  different measures must  resonate with their particular contexts.  But ultimately it’s a question of power – the power to determine and to name inequity, hegemony and multiple forms of imperialism as contained in the GDP indexes. Fortunately pressure from the majority world and women of the majority world is mounting and the work of myself and many colleagues and contemporaries will, perhaps, begin to create crevices in the imperviousness of neoliberal GDP logic.

Lebohang Liepollo Pheko

Lebohang is an activist scholar, public intellectual, development practitioner for over 25 years. Her  broad research Interests  include  Afrikan political economy, States and nationhood, international trade & global financial governance …

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