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By Jussi Ahokas

Finland took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union this autumn (from 1 July to 31 December). The timing of Finland’s third EU Presidency has been very interesting. The European Parliament election took place in May and during the autumn the construction of the new European Commission has been under way. The future choices of Europe and the next steps for policies of the European Union have been widely discussed. Hence, more room than usual has been opened for envisioning and reflection – what should be the desirable future path for the whole continent and the union of European nation states?

As the chair of the Council Finland has tried to seize the opportunity by bringing new initiatives to the European policy discussions. Most importantly, Finnish Ministry of Social affairs and Health introduced the Economy of Wellbeing policy approach that emphasises the fact that increasing the wellbeing of people creates positive outcomes for the economy. This in turn allows new investments to increase wellbeing, inclusion and participation. Thus, the Economy of Wellbeing presents the positive cumulative causation, or the virtuous circle, which will lead to the improving people’s capabilities to live good lives.

During the autumn many interesting events under the theme of Economy of Wellbeing have been organized. The high-level conference of Economy of Wellbeing in September in Helsinki brought together politicians, civil servants, researchers and civil society actors from different European countries. Economy of Wellbeing as a new policy approach was enthusiastically welcomed and almost all discussants seemed to be inspired by the concept. Later in October the EU council adopted conclusions on the Economy of Wellbeing which also portrayed the European wide interest on the new policy approach.

The civil society actors had important role in the high-level conference raising also somewhat critical voices on the current situation in Europe and the policy efforts of the EU. For example, the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) and the Social Platform – European NGOs that organized their own events in Helsinki earlier in that week – reminded the participants that the guiding idea and policy goal of Economy of Wellbeing should be people’s wellbeing and that economy is only a tool for making this happen.

From the perspective of SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health the message of EAPN and the Social Platform was of great importance. Indeed, in Finland SOSTE introduced the concept of Wellbeing Economy already in 2012 and slowly it has drawn more general attention in Finnish society. Before the EU presidency SOSTE was in close dialogue with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and it can be argued that the initiative of Economy of Wellbeing in Europe has its roots in civil society. This is a very good example of the power that NGOs and civil society can have in developing new visions and approaches that could change policies in the EU in the long-term.

The critical stance of NGOs – that the wellbeing of the people should always be the primary policy goal – has much importance, because the Economy of Wellbeing approach presented by the Ministry is also concerned over the “wellbeing” of the economy. There is a risk of “business as usual” being legitimised by the argument that besides the wellbeing of the people, we also need economic growth and sustainable public finances to achieve our goals. Hence, in time of an economic crises even austerity measures could be legitimised with Economy of Wellbeing approach.

Another important critique is the lack of – or at least too small – role for ecological and environmental perspectives. It is impossible to deny that at the time of climate crisis (and other ecological crises) the wellbeing of our planet is the most important policy issue and by neglecting it, we are not able to secure the wellbeing of people in our societies.

Therefore, it is very important that civil society actors continue to battle over the concept of Economy of Wellbeing in Europe. In the best scenario the initiative will bring us more policy space to build an actual Wellbeing Economy. An economic and social model that puts the wellbeing of all people and our planet first.

Mr. Jussi Ahokas is Chief Economist for SOSTE Finnish Federation for Social Affairs and Health – SOSTE is a member of WEAll

The OECD has convening power. It has influencing power. And it has the power of its policy advice. It can prescribe changes that are listened to the same way a patient listens to their doctors advice.

So when the OECD’s regular gatherings on measuring wellbeing and shaping policy show signs of moving away from the cosy ‘GDP and beyond’ mantra and the non-system-challenging focus on treatment, then it is worth taking notice.

There’s a new regime in town.

In Paris over one hundred people spent two days hearing from the governments leading the effort to embed a focus on wellbeing into policy agenda. By the end, people were joking that the audience must have ‘framework fatigue’.

Diverse governments, from the UAE to Iceland, from Scotland to Jersey, from France to New Zealand, from Finland to Paraguay set out their efforts to shape policy-making – and, crucially – budgeting, in accordance with promotion and enabling of wellbeing. Discussion was about taking this seriously, changing planning and spending accordingly: the OECD Secretary-General told the audience that: “if it ain’t in the budget, it ain’t really a priority”.

Tensions between different conceptions of wellbeing were, thank goodness, not swept under the carpet as they often are in such discussions. People recognised that a focus on multidimensional wellbeing and the drivers of wellbeing was not the same as rallying around a single number measuring subjective self-reported wellbeing.

But what is done with any measure matters: Professor Jeff Sachs warned that looking at narrow measures means narrow perspective: “the stock market rising”, he said “but US life expectancy is falling, [the US has a] suicide and opioid epidemic – our country is in crisis, but we don’t know it’s a crisis because we don’t look at the right data; this question is not even asked”.

Speaking of drugs, Sachs (channelling WEAll Ambassador Robert Costanza) likened the prevailing money and growth focus to an addiction: “making money is addictive and we have an addiction”. This was reinforced by Martine Durand, OECD Chief Statistician and Director of the Statistics and Data Directorate who said “GDP was never meant to measure wellbeing; it’s been abused and now we’re addicted to it – need to go to a clinic to stop this addiction”. Fortunately, the doctors on duty are willing to look the patient in the eye and tell them some hard truths.

One of these is grappling with the need for both of the ‘two S.C.s’ as I described them. This first is a focus survival and coping – treating people whose wellbeing is low. This is, of course a humane response. It is also not enough in the face of an inhumane economy that is the root cause of so much anxiety and stress, to both people and to planet.

Hence the need for the second ‘S.C.’: system change that asks why people’s wellbeing is low and what changes in the economic set up need to be undertaken in response? Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff challenged delegates to think beyond celebration of amelioration: “Even the existence of social safety nets tells us people are falling and we need to catch them. But how do we keep them from falling?”

In terms of system change, there was also a frank discussion about the relevance of a growth orientated agenda in the richest countries. Of course ecological economists and others have been questioning this for years, but to have senior members of the policy making establishment state that growth doesn’t matter for quality of life in GDP-rich countries (asserting it is “irrelevant for rich country’s wellbeing”) and to even question why the OECD would maintain a programme under the heading of ‘Inclusive Growth’ seemed to be a new high point for the post-growth conversation.

Finally, an impatience with the disconnect between what the wellbeing community has been measuring and saying for years and slow progress in shifting the economic agenda was apparent. Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, opened the conference by saying the world is “well past the point when a lack of data is an excuse – [now the] need is to rationalise and choose and targets which are the relevant indicators”.

If these two days were a heartening stock-take on the state of the debate on wellbeing measures and policy agendas, their timing was just as useful: Finland is currently President of the EU and has made the ‘economy of wellbeing’ it’s flagship agenda. At times, the Finnish contribution seemed a little out of place, better suited to a gathering 5 years ago in that it emphasised the business case for wellbeing and asserting that if governments boost wellbeing that will boost growth. Fortunately, if the rest of the OECD conference was anything to go by, the thinking has moved on and the question is now “what can growth do for wellbeing?”. Not the other way around.

By Katherine Trebeck, WEAll Knowledge and Policy lead

Based on the results of the 2018 IPCC Special Report, all countries and sectors should speed up emission reductions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. In addition to regulations, carbon taxes are effective at reducing emissions. Based on research, the best way to introduce them is via a budget-neutral environmental tax reform (ETR).

This research analyses the potential tax instruments that could be used in Finland to support emission cuts and the circular economy. From the potential pool of instruments, a total of three different types of ETR scenarios are formed and their impacts on the economy and emissions are analysed. The first scenario includes environmental taxes that mainly target firms and that might harm the cost-competitiveness of energy-intensive Finnish industries without compensations. The second scenario includes environmental taxes mainly targeting consumers; we analyse their regressivity, which is one of the main concerns regarding environmental and emission taxes. The third ETR scenario aims to promote circular economy solutions.

Based on the findings, all three scenarios would bring about the “double dividend” effect by significantly reducing emissions and increasing employment and GDP compared to baselines.

Minister of Social Affairs and Health in Finland, Pirkko Mattila, has set out new plans for prioritising “The Economy of Wellbeing” as a means to taking a holistic approach to tackle future challenges.

Read the full article on Open Access Government here.