Marilyn Waring, former Chair of New Zealand’s Finance Committee (1974), New Zealand’s first female MP (member of parliament), feminist economist, author (Counting for Nothing: As If Women Counted) and professor of public policy at Auckland University, has expressed her reservations about New Zealand’s proposed Well-being Budget for 2019 announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the recentWorld Economic Forum in Davos.

At first blush, New Zealand’s proposed Well-being Budget should receive the highest accolades. Presumably a well-being-based approach to governance and public policy would constitute enlightened governance; for at least the past 20 years I’ve been advocating for a Well-being Economic Model for governance of nations and communities with a new accounting system that would replace the 73-year old system of national income accounts, from which GDP (gross domestic product) measure of progress is derived, with a well-being impact measurement and reporting system.

Waring, who authored the book Counting for Nothing 30 years ago, has been a critic of national income accounting and GDP who has pointed out that GDP ignores the value of women’s unpaid work as well as the value nature contributes to societal well-being.

Today, many people, including myself, hope that there would at last be a shift to a well-being approach to measuring progress replacing the old measure of progress measured by GDP (GDP only measures the value of monetary transactions in an economy while ignoring all other activities that occur where no money changes hands). Measuring progress based on well-being would seem to make common sense; this would address Robert Kennedy’s 1968 commentary that “GDP fails to measure the things that make life worthwhile.”

But what does Marilyn Waring make New Zealand’s aspiration for a Well-being Budget? Waring isn’t impressed and sees many shortcomings including the continued reliance on GDP as a measure of progress. She is so frustrated with the lack of progress that her nation of New Zealand and others have made in replacing GDP since her first book was released 30 years ago that she has published a new book Still Counting: Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy Making.

Waring is less bullish about Prime Minister Ardern’s announcement at Davos. She points out that what New Zealand means by well-being is based on the OECD Better Life Index — a composite index of 11 pre-determined indicator, which still includes GDP and other money metrics of the economy. Her beef is that these new indices still fail to measure the value of time, unpaid women’s work and the environment, let alone asking children, youth and adults how they actually feel about their well-being.

My own reading of what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern means by wellbeing, seems to focus on a growing mental wellbeing crisis in New Zealand. Suicide rates have risen sharply having increased for the fourth year in a row. Suicide is highest amongst men and especially Māori men.

Waring’s frustration is that New Zealand, like other western nations, continues to rely on the OECD’s ‘monocultural, Western and very Eurocentric characteristics of wellbeing.’ In short, she believes we are still not measuring what actually makes life worthwhile for people. What I would call measuring people’s actual experiences and feelings towards their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

Waring points to a better framework for measuring well-being developed by Māori of New Zealand called Te Kupenga (a statistical framework developed by to capture data on Māori social, cultural, and economic wellbeing). She sees great value in Te Kupenga’s focus on quality of life and its ability to gather data at a collective rather than solely individual level.

She praises Canadian (including my work on the Alberta Genuine Well-being Index and the Personal Well-being Index) and Australian approaches to gathering information about wellbeing: their measures ask people what contributes to their wellbeing, rather than relying on pre-determined indicators.

The questions I am now asking in my Well-being surveys at a community scale include how people feel about their life satisfaction, physical health, spiritual well-being, hope, relationship with neighbours and family, sufficiency of money, and the meaning they derive from work. These are the aspects of well-being are what psychologists who study well-being and happiness say are the key determinants of a good life.

Waring points to a pathway to building a genuine economy of well-being that includes embedding indigenous (Māori) Te Kupenga principles in wellbeing decision-making, and undertaking rigorous and regular time-use surveys. She urges significant changes to the ways in which data are prioritised, collected and reported, so that ‘inadequate proxies and abstractions’ are avoided.

Waring and I would agree that an economy and decision making based on genuine well-being is possible with the political will to measure what actually makes life worth living for all of us.

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