Alternative indicators of well-being for Melanesia: changing the way progress is measured in the South Pacific

Written by Jamie Tanguay

imageThe call for a new metric

The UK-based New Economics Foundation first published “The Happy Planet Index: an index of human well-being and environmental impact” in 2006, in which countries were ranked in relation to three indicators of well-being:  life satisfaction, life expectancy, and ecological footprint. The report declared Vanuatu, one of the world’s most impoverished countries, to be the world’s happiest.

Can the happiest country in the world be, at the same time, one of the least developed? The Happy Planet Index finding alerted leaders in Vanuatu to the need for new indicators to be developed. These would take into account the income-neutral factors contributing to well-being for Melanesians, rather than solely relying on GDP and associated development metrics to measure success or progress.

The project to track Melanesian well-being began in June 2010, with the first regional stakeholders meeting in Mele Village, Vanuatu. Statistical and cultural authorities from Fiji, Solomon Islands, Kanaky New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville and Vanuatu discussed the contributing factors to well-being within a Melanesian context. Three distinct and unique domains of well-being emerged from the meeting: access to land and natural resources; cultural participation and; community and family vitality.

Further social research was conducted to determine what information is most relevant and how questions could be phrased to obtain such information. This included focus groups with youth, women, community leaders and ni-Vanuatu social researchers. Fieldwork was conducted in 2011 and 2012 by the Vanuatu National Statistics Office and a report of findings from the pilot study was launched in August 2012 by the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs.

Impact of the Vanuatu pilot study

Regional interest in the ‘Alternative Indicators of Well-being for Melanesia’ project grew immediately following the initial launch of the pilot study report and online release of a documentary highlighting the key outcomes. The report illustrated a correlation of subjective well-being to natural resource access, traditional knowledge and community vitality in Vanuatu, implying policy relevance for sustainable economic and social development. The prime ministers of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji and the leadership of the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) endorsed the project. They ordered a pilot trial of the alternative indicators in their countries, with the aim of developing a regional well-being index for the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

In early 2012 the pilot study also caught the eye of the Statistics for Development division of the Secretariat for the Pacific Community (SPC). Several of the indicators piloted in Vanuatu, such as indigenous language prevalence indicators, natural resource access indicators, and traditional production skills and their use, were included in the Pacific Living Condition Survey in order to provide context to the standard income and expenditure information produced in such surveys. This resulted in Vanuatu leading the region by achieving eight of the 12 reported National Minimum Development Indicators (NMDIs) for culture as of 2013.

A number of academic papers have referenced the report since its launch. One notable example of academic testing and application of the alternative indicators can be found in a recent paper by Simon Feeny, Lachlan McDonald and Alberto Posso of the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University. The paper explored the relationship between poverty and happiness using data from Solomon Islands and Vanuatu that revealed a critical shortcoming of traditional monetary poverty indicators. Contrary to what is found to be true in Western developed countries, the level of income does not explain variation in happiness in either of these Melanesian countries, leading the authors to conclude that “the quest for alternative indicators of well-being in the region is therefore well justified”.

Conclusion

The greatest impact of the 2012 pilot study is yet to be seen. The former prime minister of Vanuatu, Hon. Moana Carcasses Kalosil Katokai, commenced national consultations in early 2013 towards a sustainable development plan, which will incorporate the alternative indicators in the monitoring of national policies, programs and projects beginning in 2016. Inclusion of the alternative indicators in the national policy framework moves the measures from the realm of discourse to practical application. This means that there is real potential for long term changes in decision making and increased public participation in the political process.

A central component for human development, according to the UNDP Human Development Index, is for all people “to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living”. The information obtained in the pilot study on well-being in Vanuatu illustrates how customary lands serve as a more effective resource than money for the vast majority of families. Access indicators for customary lands, forest and marine resources, and traditional wealth items, combined with indicators of traditional production skills, form a uniquely Melanesian measure of reliance on the cash economy. It is this increasing reliance on cash that promises to be the greatest threat to well-being in the region.

A follow-up of the pilot study is set to take place in 2015, which will establish the baseline for well-being in Vanuatu.

Jamie Tanguay is Project Coordinator for Alternative Indicators of Wellbeing for Melanesia, housed within the Melanesian Spearhead Group Secretariat.  

 

Jamie Tanguay

Jamie Tanguay is Project Coordinator for Alternative Indicators of Wellbeing for Melanesia, housed within the Melanesian Spearhead Group Secretariat.

3 Comments

  • Hi Jamie,
    Thank you for sharing an interesting piece of work on alternative indicators for measuring well-being in the Pacific. When it comes to well-being concerns in the Pacific, the issues are doubly complex. Because the notion of measuring well-being in monetary terms through consumption or income is still relatively foreign. When in fact a significant share of the population in the Pacific still rely on self-produced or procured resources from land (often communal) and sea. Existence of poverty measured in monetary terms would imply the failure of the traditional networks of support that exist across the Pacific, making it a culturally sensitive topic!

    Not only that but current measures of poverty in the Pacific still rely on household-level data as the basis for estimating the number of people living below the poverty line. This is problematic and arguably hide rather than reveal the extent of poverty among women and men within the same household. Such measures of poverty, which focuses on income alone and on the household as a unit, ignores intra-household disparities because the ways in which women and men relate to material resources, are grounded in their different social relations and positions in communities and societies at large.

    There’s already some research done in this area in six countries (Angola, Fiji, Indonesia, Malawi, Mozambique and the Philippines) as part of a Australian Research Council-funded linkage research project Assessing Development: Designing Better Indices of Poverty and Gender Equity. The project website http://www.genderpovertymeasure.org provides a wealth of information about the research including the people and organisations involved, methodology, data analysis, and country reports. The project has concluded with a first trial of a newly developed gender-sensitive measure of poverty in the Philippines.

    But further trialling of the gender sensitive poverty measure is needed in different contexts of the Pacific to provide comparable data across the region and refine measures of well-being taking into consideration such studies like the Vanuatu one to the point where it can be readily integrated into national and regional systems of social valuation.

    Thanks
    Priya

  • Re-posting this comment as wordpress swallowed my last effort.

    Hi Jamie,

    Thank you for a very interesting blog post. In it you write that:

    “A number of academic papers have referenced the report since its launch. One notable example of academic testing and application of the alternative indicators can be found in a recent paper by Simon Feeny, Lachlan McDonald and Alberto Posso of the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University. The paper explored the relationship between poverty and happiness using data from Solomon Islands and Vanuatu that revealed a critical shortcoming of traditional monetary poverty indicators. Contrary to what is found to be true in Western developed countries, the level of income does not explain variation in happiness in either of these Melanesian countries, leading the authors to conclude that “the quest for alternative indicators of well-being in the region is therefore well justified”.

    However, the abstract of the paper you link to states that:

    “The focus is on whether those living in poverty are less happy. Findings indicate that wealth, increases in income, relative income, and living on communally owned land are all positively associated with happiness. Household size and food insecurity have a negative association. There is also strong support for poor households being less happy.”

    I haven’t read the whole paper yet (although I will, thank you for linking to it). However, your statement and the abstract’s claims seem very hard to reconcile.

    Cheers

    Terence

    • Thank you for pointing that out Terence. The paper argues in its conclusion for further development of alternative metrics due to the lack of correlation between SWB and income levels. I cited this in the posting, however, it is true that the researchers found a correlation between SWB and increases in income and other factors which they explore and which seem consistent with other studies of SWB. The main take-away from that piece, for me, was the justification for non-monetary metrics to be developed given that the SWB data collected in their research does not behave the same way it does in other parts of the world. The paper does not test our Alternative Indicators of Well-being.

      Best,
      Jamie

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