Henry J Lewis

There is an insatiable appetite for gross domestic product (GDP) growth in Jamaica and the Caribbean. The Economic Growth Council (EGC) has projected a “5 in 4” GDP growth and is ensuring the Government does everything possible to achieve this goal. The assumption is that if Jamaica reaches five per cent growth in four years the country will increase in wealth and prosperity.

However, no one told the EGC and the Government that the GDP growth model used around the world, and favoured by the powerful multinationals, is not the best model. A closer examination will show that this model has led to climate change issues, inequality, and the depletion of social and natural capital.

The current growth model has failed to bring meaningful change to the lives of people and their environment. Despite regular statements of projected growth figures by the Bank of Jamaica and the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, which point to prosperity for the Jamaican people, there are many Jamaicans, like Miss Mavis (not her real name), who remain on the fringes of the economy.

Mavis told me that she earns $3,000 a week for looking after the boss’s mother, with a “likkle extra” when the boss “mek a likkle more”. And there are many more like Mavis. Growth headlines like ‘Jamaica welcomes four millionth visitor…Barlett projects five percent growth’ do not help the ordinary citizens like Mavis. The truth is, the global economic system glorifies growth but pays scant regard for the impact on the environment and the living conditions of the average citizen.


Gov’ts need new lenses

The Government’s growth champion, the EGC, needs new lenses; however, this is in no way an indictment on its architects. I believe it was a brilliant idea to ensure that there is some focus towards the elusive growth that has played ‘hide and go seek’ with several economies across the region. However, what the EGC, the prime minister, and other leaders of governments around the Caribbean do not know is that there is a global movement of individuals, organisations, and more recently countries, that are shifting away from the narrow focus on GDP growth to a more broadly used model that focuses on sustainable well-being.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is an example of such a model. It encompasses a broad set of 17 goals that go far beyond GDP growth by including the elimination of hunger and poverty, reducing gender inequality, the need to address climate change issues, and the restoration of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, among others.


An urgent plea

I am urging the Government of Jamaica and governments around the Caribbean to join a newly established international group called the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, or WE-All. This is a group of five countries whose policy is to achieve the UN’s SDGs and, at the same time, the holistic well-being of communities, economies and the environment. They are Sweden, Scotland, Slovenia, New Zealand, and Costa Rica, and have committed to creating WE-All as an alternative to conventional groupings such as the G-8 or G-20.

They are looking for other governments around the world to join them. The five countries met for the first time in Glasgow in October 2017 under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s highest minister. The WE-All is supported by an international group of scientists and associations from various countries that have been working together since 2012 to provide new indicators to show people’s progress over economic growth. Since 2015, the group has presented a composite indicator, Sustainable Wellbeing Index, to assist nations in achieving world goals.


What is a Wellbeing Economy?

The Wellbeing Economy is an emerging paradigm with useful assumptions for framing economic, environmental, social, and political goals. It has the fundamental goal of achieving sustainable well-being with dignity and fairness for humans and the rest of nature. This is in stark contrast to current economies that are wedded to a very narrow vision of development-indiscriminate growth of GDP.

Well-being is the outcome of a convergence of factors, including good human, mental, and physical health, greater equity and fairness, good social relationships, and a flourishing natural environment. Only a holistic approach to prosperity can, therefore, achieve and sustain well-being. A system of economic governance aimed at promoting well-being will, therefore, need to account for all of the impacts (both positive and negative) of economic activity. This includes valuing goods and services derived from a healthy society (social capital) and a thriving biosphere (natural capital). Social and natural capital are part of the commons.


New policy and new politics

A Wellbeing Economy recognises that happiness, meaning, and thriving depend on far more than material consumption. The Wellbeing Economy proposition has implications for politics, policy, and analysis — all of which are critical for reaching the goal. First, it will facilitate a different kind of change through political and policy processes that will encourage citizens’ preferences regarding development. Change may be expected in terms of quantity and quality, but not by existing unethical imbalance.

At the end of November 2017, the WE-All working group, in Pretoria, South Africa, put forward a framework of what it means to achieve a Wellbeing Economy. They believe that to achieve such an economy, a major transformation of our worldview, society, and economy are needed to:

  1. stay within planetary biophysical boundaries — a sustainable size of the economy within our ecological life support system;
  2. meet all fundamental human needs; including food, shelter, dignity, respect, education, health, security, voice, and purpose, among others;
  3. create and maintain a fair distribution of resources, income, and wealth within and between nations, current and future generations of humans, and other species;
  4. have an efficient allocation of resources, including common natural and social capital assets, to allow inclusive prosperity, human development and flourishing;
  5. create governance systems that are fair, responsive, just and accountable.


This is in stark contrast to current economies that are tied to a very narrow perspective of development, unlimited growth in GDP. The Wellbeing Economy recognises that the economy is intertwined with society and nature. It must be managed as an integrated system that has a reciprocal link.

It was good to hear that the Government has announced that the Cockpit Country is a protected area and subsequently declaring Goat Islands a wildlife sanctuary. Let us not forget that these pronouncements were made after many years of advocacy by civil society, environmentalists and other interest groups. Governments who function on the Wellbeing Economy paradigm do not have to wait on petitions to act on environmental issues; they do so because the environment is a central element of economic development.

There is no one-size-fits-all in a Wellbeing Economy. In my view, it must be a robust process that incorporates the nation’s history, resources, culture, experiences of people and communities with economic activities, livelihoods, and ecosystems. All these are crucial elements. It means context is vital. Jamaica cannot afford to be left behind.

More on the Wellbeing Economy to come, but until such time, let’s begin the dialogue now!


Photo credit: (photo: Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters/Newscom)