Saturday, August 15, 2009

Gross National Happiness - New Measure of Development

The new Sarawak state government, as a mainstream policy-making body, can be more sensitive to alternative approaches and start to measure Gross National Happiness and translate the indicators and data into public policy. If Sarawak’s new policymakers measure what really matters to people—health care, safety, a clean environment, and other indicators of well-being; economic policy would naturally shift towards sustainability and real progress for all Sarawakians. Here's why:

1. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong -- a premise he supports with intriguing research, and explains in his accessible and unexpectedly funny book, Stumbling on Happiness. Dan Gilbert believes that, in our ardent, lifelong pursuit of happiness, most of us have the wrong map. In the same way that optical illusions fool our eyes -- and fool everyone’s eyes in the same way -- Gilbert argues that our brains systematically misjudge what will make us happy. And these quirks in our cognition make humans very poor predictors of our own bliss.

2. Jack Welch, who is regarded as the father of the “shareholder value” movement that has dominated the corporate world for more than 20 years, has said it was “a dumb idea” for executives to focus so heavily on quarterly profits and share price gains. Jack Welch, whose record at GE encouraged other executives to replicate its consistent returns, said that managers and investors should not set share price increases as their overarching goal. His comments, made in an interview for the FT’s series on the future of capitalism, come as the economic crisis has caused a radical rethinking by many leading executives and policymakers.

3. “Gross National Product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising and . . . the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play . . . the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life wothwhile.” Robert Kennedy, 1968.

The above three topics may seem totally unrelated. However, upon putting my radical rethinking hat while considering Prime Minister Najib’s key result areas and gov’t KPIs in relation to measures of progress of Sarawak people, these three subjects are indeed, totally related. Governments, businesses and citizens must focus on what really make us happy.

Sarawakians must now set out a radical proposal to the new state government to guide the direction of modern Sarawak and the lives of people who live in them. In contrast to the conventional narrow focus on economic indicators, we must call on the new state government to directly and regularly measure people’s subjective well-being: their experiences, feelings and perceptions of how their lives are going, as a new way of assessing societal progress.

Some 40 years ago, in my kampong, my parents and siblings lived better, healthier and happier lives, despite no electricity, no roads and none of today’s modern necessities. We cooked over wood fire, got our water from the cool mountain stream and plenty of harvests from the farms.

Today, the rivers and streams have fewer fishes, we use too much pesticides in the farms, we live too much on credit with our education, house and car loans and we have to work harder to pay many bills and to cope with higher and higher costs of living. In all, I’m more miserable than I was 40 years ago.

The roads and electricity supply in the modern kampong today are not making our planet any better. In fact, these modern amenities only serve to increase our carbon footprint. We’ll be leaving to the future generations, a planet that’s degenerated and too costly to clean up.

The world is facing a breakdown of communities, environmental degradation, global warming, continuing poverty, and climbing rates of hunger. It is the perfect opportunity to reconsider development, progress, and purpose in terms of what is truly most important in life. Development is under scrutiny as a cycle of more production for more consumption to boost gross national product. There is an urgency to reconsider development in a broader, holistic manner and reclaim the concept of progress as genuine desirable change.

Economists, policymakers, reporters, and the public rely on the GDP as a shorthand indicator of progress; but the GDP is merely a sum of national spending with no distinctions between transactions that add to well-being and those that diminish it.
Mike Pennock from Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) Atlantic argued that measures such as Gross National Happiness provide a guideline for developing a framework of national accounting where suitable monetary value can be placed on assets such as the environment and voluntary work. Thus costs and benefits can be calculated and accounted for in a balance sheet, and policymakers in turn cannot overlook vital aspects of human, social, and natural capital.

Some pioneering visions of alternative progress have emerged in Asia, chief among them the concept of Gross National Happiness as coined by Former King of Bhutan Jigme Wangchuck. Gross National Happiness has four pillars: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance. Gross National Happiness values are measured by tracking wellness in seven domains: economic, environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social, and political.

Currently there are two parallel global movements. The first can be characterized by the World Economic Forum, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, supporting traditional notions of development. The second is the World Social Forum, Gross National Happiness, and allied movements that seek to redefine progress.

Measuring well-being would shift the goalposts for what nations regard as success. The aim is to bring about change in how societies shape the lives of their citizens. If they are to be effective, measures of well-being therefore need to influence the design of policy made by international, national and local governments.

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