Institut de Gestion de l'Environnement et d'Aménagement du Territoire

Toward theoretically sound and democratically legitimate indicators of well-being in Belgium. (WELLBEBE)

RETURN

The Wellbebe project aims at building indicators and index of well-being in order to complement or substitute GDP as leading indicator for designing and assessing social progress and human development. Next to finding indicators of well-being in Belgium, the broad objective of the research is to promote a democratic and participative transition towards more sustainability in quality of life. Therefore, it is necessary to know what criteria citizens use to assess their quality of life. There is a growing scientific support that the measurement of well-being or quality of life requires additional indicators, going beyond income (or resource based indicators in general) or happiness (or utilitarian indicators). To develop satisfactory indicators, it is also important to define the conception of well-being, quality of life, etc., on which the indicator should be based. It is not only important to be consistent with scientific knowledge, but also to make sure that the conceptions of well-being or quality of life underlying the indicators correspond to those shared by the population.

Context

Sustainable development will not be achieved without some fundamental changes in our patterns of living. Therefore, it will be necessary to rely less on material commodities and more on immaterial goods to realise our conception of a good, valuable life while maintaining or even improving our overall well-being. However, in order to trigger a democratic and participative transition towards sustainable development, it is necessary, first to know what are the shared conceptions of a good, valuable life and second, what criteria citizens use to assess social arrangements in terms of quality of life. On the other hand, improved indicators of well-being have become indispensable to guide public policies as it is widely acknowledged that increasing production and consumption has ceased to induce more well-being and happiness.

The comparison between indicators of economic performance (GDP/capita) and other more specialised indicators of well-being such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Fordham Institute index of social health – whatever their shortcomings – shows that, almost since the years 1973, more economic growth has ceased to be synonymous of more well-being. As long as GDP’s growth correlated almost perfectly with improvement in wellbeing, there was no call for other measures of the effectiveness of our production and consumption patterns in bringing about wellbeing and happiness. It is furthermore acknowledged that, if the production and consumption patterns of affluent societies have brought about considerable level of material welfare in Europe, their requirements in terms of environmental resources and functions are such that they could not be extended to the whole earth population or to the future generations. Today, because the historical marriage of relatively generic economic growth, a certain respect of global environmental limits and achievements in generating some improved societal wellbeing is broken, the definition of alternative well-being indicators becomes indispensable. The demand for such alternative measurements of wellbeing is currently spreading strongly over society, not contending itself anymore to the spheres of academics and official statisticians.

In the international and European policy context, the discussion of alternative indicators has been particularly revived in 2009. Most noted by international and national media, and thus policy makers, has been the presentation and publication of the ‘Stiglitz-report’ in September 2009. Indeed the presentation of the report on the “Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress” elaborated during an 18 months’ period by a commission chaired by J. Stiglitz, A. Sen and J-P. Fitoussi (www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr) and commissioned by the French presidential authorities, has to be considered as a milestone in bringing to the mainstream – with the help of the credibility of the commission’s members - the long-lasting critical voices and messages on current indicators of wellbeing. While the report does not bring forward a clear recommendation in terms of, for instance, novel indicators of wellbeing in replacement of GDP, it’s credit lies in concentrating and articulating the main shortcomings of GDP as a measurement of wellbeing in the 21st century. The report does this by employing a range of complementary, useful perspectives, reaching from the statistical to the political. Because of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission contending itself to stay within a mostly disciplinary economic reading and interpretation, parallel initiatives emerged which more profoundly ask for a redeployment of our measures of wellbeing and welfare. Most notably, a second French initiative, the FAIR-network (Forum pour d’Autres Indicateurs de Richesses) helped to raise its members’ voices in French media on shortcomings linked to the procedural setting and the content of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission itself, and used the political momentum to ask for more innovative approaches to the measurement of progress (notably on the process to select indicators, or components of indicators). September 2009 saw also the presentation of the European Commission’s policy paper on “GDP and beyond: measuring progress in a changing world” (www.beyond-gdp.eu) which developed the European roadmap to the renewal of our measurements of wellbeing. In October 2009, the OECD’s “3rd Worldforum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy” held in Busan (Korea) raised identical messages as the Stiglitz-report for the ears of a large audience of international, transnational and national authorities (www.oecdworldforum2009.org). Simultaneously, but more locally, in Belgium, the Federal Planning Bureau’s Task force Sustainable Development (www.plan.be) published in September 2009 its Federal Report on Sustainable Development entirely dedicated to the construction of an indicator framework and set, pursuing their objective to complement mono-sided perspective on (sustainable) development provided by GDP. Finally, at regional level, the Walloon statistical and prospective institute (IWEPS- statistiques.wallonie.be) organized a discussion seminar in December 2009 dedicated to the Stiglitz report, on top of which a Belgian antenna network of FAIR was initiated (Réseau FAIR Wallonie-Bruxelles).

Undoubtedly, there is thus some political, institutional and societal momentum - at least since late 2009 - to question measurements of welfare and to further experiment with alternative measurements in the sense of WELLBEBE. Within these very different forums, voices are raised for democratically improved and more legitimate processes of indicator discussion and construction, which are further reinforcing the timeliness of WELLBEBE.

Collaboration

The project is coordinated by Paul-Marie Boulanger and Anne-Laurence Lefin from the Institut pour un Développement Durable. We further collaborate with Luc Van Ootegem and Sophie Spielemaekers from the Hooger Instituut voor de Arbeid of KU Leuven.

Sponsors

Politique Scientifique Fédérale, Belspo.

Objectives

The project aims at working out an index of well-being in Belgium which would be altogether internally consistent, democratically legitimate and suitable for guiding and assessing sustainable development policies. This general goal can be subdivided in the following intermediate objectives:

  • Identify the different conceptions of the “good life” and their distribution in the population. More precisely: what does well-being mean for people, what makes a life valuable for them, what are its main dimensions and what importance do they attach to each of them.
  • Analyse how people assess social arrangements in terms of well-being;
  • Identify the best indicators for each component of well-being and collect the corresponding available data at the collective level;
  • Subject the basic indicators to a sample of citizens in order to collect statistically significant weights for their aggregation;
  • Aggregate the data in one or at most a handful of synthetic indices;
  • Analysis of the behaviour of the indices during the recent past and its correlation with other indicators (GDP, unemployment rate, poverty rate…)
  • Explore by (qualitative) simulation the implications in terms of well-being of hypothetical sustainable development policies.

The two main keywords (‘theoretical soundness’ and ‘democratic legitimization’) of the WELLBEBE project - and which are grossly separating the project along its 2 phases and into its two lines of research - help also to understand the more specific objectives and design of the transitional work programme carried out in 2009.

On the first axis (theoretical soundness), without denying the usefulness of improving the way we measure (and value) our economic activities (and maybe other activities as well), WELLBEBE came during Phase 1 to distinguish better what is of the order of the measurement of the means or inputs (the economic activities) and what is of the order of the measurement of aims and objectives, i.e. well-being, quality of life, human flourishing or, in short, human development (outputs). The conclusions of Phase 1 argue in favour of a mixed approach to alternative wellbeing measurements, integrating objective and subjective appreciations/components of wellbeing. A very direct consequence of arguing for such a combined subjective/objective approach to wellbeing is the necessity to develop a specific framework (i.e. the measurement’s skeleton), which allows for such a combination in a robust way. The main objective of 2009 was then logically to explore existing frameworks, and develop an integrative framework for WELLBEBE.

The second axis of Phase 2 of WELLBEBE is to submit the measurement – and/or its logics, mechanics, composition, components… – to a process of ‘democratic legitimization’. Part of the year 2009 translated thus into the objective to prepare for the gathering, analysis and combination of citizens’ perceptions of the components and the ‘mechanics’, of the composition of an alternative measurement of wellbeing. The initially foreseen representative survey had not merely to be organized, but more profoundly so to be scrutinized for its exact eventual conceptual configuration, operational aims, policy-related targets.

Period

2007 - 2011