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What is a good life, really?

A member blog post by

Louise Davies

Scotland's International Development Alliance

Louise Davies reports on a debate at the Festival of Politics which considered whether a wellbeing economy is the answer to the global cost of living crisis. 

Let’s begin at the beginning, which in this case was half way through the debate, when an audience member asked how wellbeing and the economy can possibly fit together? How can wellbeing, a natural inner physical, psychological or social status have any correlation with the economy, a manmade structure imposed on our society? 

Political economist, Gemma Bone Dodds, explained that it’s all about system change. A wellbeing economy goes to the roots of what our economy should be, which is something other than wealth, i.e. wellbeing. Gemma is a former university lecturer and whilst on a precarious contract, being paid by the hour, her employer offered Gemma and colleagues some free yoga sessions to help alleviate any stress they were experiencing. Gemma pointed out that the real way to alleviate stress was to sort out her employment contract. The odd yoga class might be a quick fix, but the systemic change needed was fair employment. This goes some way to explaining the kind of structural changes a wellbeing economy would bring about. 

Miriam Brett, also a political economist, talked about how the economy should give us the necessities and more for life. We need good wages and good conditions, and we need to be actively rooting out inequalities.  

WeAll Scotland’s four Ps give a good guide to how to create a wellbeing economy. First we need Purpose – guiding principles that drive businesses, policies, and people’s decision making. Secondly we need Prevention. Instead of spending time fixing the problems caused by our economy, we need  preventative measures. The third P is Pre-distribution which would prevent gross inequalities. This would mean people getting paid a fair wage. Instead of taxing owners of wealth later, people who create wealth should have a fair share in the first place, so co-operative models or employee-owned businesses are good examples of this. And the last P is People Power – democracy needs to be strengthened to allow people to have genuine choices available and be in control of their lives.  

Thobile Chittenden, a community and non-profit leader speaking from Johannesburg, spoke about the need for diversity of thought in building a wellbeing economy. The beauty of a wellbeing economy is that it provides for plurality and inclusivity and invites everyone to have a say. In Thobile’s experience, working in a local context offers opportunity for a decolonised approach, bringing indigenous knowledge to the fore and ensuring everyone’s voice is valid. A wellbeing economy means everyone has a say about how we live our lives and how we engage with each other. 

Thobile acknowledged, however, that the term “wellbeing economy” was not an easy one to be understood at a grassroots level. 

When she speaks to a local community who has no idea what a wellbeing economy is, Thobile asks “what is a good life?” followed by the word: “really”. Without the word “really” responses are often informed by the material – perceptions of a good life are clouded by globalisation, westernisation and typically American media. But adding in that simple word, “really”, makes for a deeper reflection, and themes like justice, healthy planet, being able to eat, earning a living wage and affording a dignified life are brought out. 

This is what Thobile works towards in community engagement, not just putting the solutions out there, but asking the question of the community as they are the experts in their daily struggles. Thobile spoke about municipalism, encouraging active participation, enabling local knowledge to flourish and building from the ground up. This results in social enterprises that think differently about business and what jobs are being created, and provide practical solutions that make a difference at the local level.  

Tackling the crises 

Whilst the event title focussed on the cost of living crisis, Gemma spoke about another crisis, climate change, and that it’s coming home to roost here for the first time. Those of us striving for a wellbeing economy need to call out that this is a crisis about surviving. The things we need to do to tackle the cost of living crisis are also the things we need to do to tackle the climate crisis. 

Thobile added another crisis into the mix, a human rights crisis. In South Africa, these multiple crises are stacking up, having a hugely detrimental affect on livelihoods. Youth unemployment is up to 63% and access to basic goods and services are being affected. Added to this, inequalities are increasing, and civil unrest is rising, affecting the social fabric of South Africa and the African continent. Thobile asked where was the spirit of ubuntu – which means togetherness, recognising humanity and one another, which is central to the point of a wellbeing economy. 

Climate justice is social justice 

For Thobile, climate justice and social justice are inextricably linked. The inequality in South Africa is frightening, with the majority of Thobile’s community being unable to feed their children properly.  

In working towards global wellbeing we need to hear the voice of the majority world which is often left out. African leaders are facing socio economic pressures and we need to consider international support and assistance. Debt alleviation and enhanced liquidity would be a big step, and importantly we need a conversation where everyone has a seat at the table, voices are not only heard, but are validated and valued. African leaders suggesting they may explore fossil fuel reserves were quickly criticised by other global leaders in that it would contribute to climate change. In South Africa, this has been seen negatively – as another example of colonisation. We need to value the knowledge that majority world countries can bring before we push solutions upon them. 

Miriam agreed that a decolonised approach is essential. We cannot just look at emissions of today, we need to look at how nations have contributed to emissions historically and that can’t be separated from colonialism and slavery, and the UK’s role in that was astronomical. This brings us to a bigger discussion about what climate justice looks like and what climate reparations looks like. 

Miriam emphasised the need for fiscal space in order to enact an energy transition. Debt accumulation currently rewards and funds creditors and rather than irresponsible lending we need responsible borrowing. Miriam called for Scotland to champion an independent debt workout mechanism, which would assess whether debt should be restructured, debt relief offered or have the debt cancelled.  

The UK also holds influence round the table of institutions such as the IMF, which Miriam referred to as ‘masters of spin’. All the talk about an inclusive and sustainable economy is meaningless when loan conditions are rooted in austerity, deregulation and privatisation of public services. This approach is fundamentally misaligned with what we need to see in order to tackle the climate and environmental crisis. We need space for a just transition and to do that we need to tackle the knee jerk reaction to economic crisis management. Systemic change is needed to reign in corporate power and root the system in climate justice. 

But listening and learning are also important components in creating global wellbeing. The story we are told is that the global south needs to ‘catch up’ with us here in the UK. But we’re making a total hash of things, with 60% of people in the UK about to struggle to pay their energy bills. We are not ones to follow. We have to listen and learn from other countries and move away from a ‘master servant’ relationship. We have to try and reduce emissions, but we have locked in a certain amount of warming that we’ll need to adapt to here. What can we learn from Africa about adaptation? What R&D could we support? What can we learn about good democracies, decisions routed in communities, sharing, innovating and collaborating together?  

How do we know if we’re doing OK? 

All of the panellists agreed that GDP was not the way to measure national progress.  

Miriam wants us to measure goals and values that we actually care about, like rates of decarbonisation, number of living wage jobs, investment into the community, sustainable businesses, equality, and how the economy delivers for us. She also called for a reframing of public policy decisions and the duration of when we expect to see a return. Short-term thinking is not applicable to nature, environment and climate breakdown  

Gemma expressed concern about any sort of single number measurement. The National Performance Framework could be a great way of measuring national progress, but is not used enough. It’s not necessarily part of the metrics on procurement or how funding gets allocated. Scotland has the potential to be world leading with this framework, but it really needs to guide policy and decision making. 

Another world is possible 

In wrapping up, Gemma pointed out that the biggest enemy of progress is the magnetism of the status quo. We’re told that this is how things happen and anything different is radical or an aberration. We’re facing a crisis and we need to use this moment well, presenting common sense solutions for good homes, good jobs and ultimately good lives. Perhaps if we all ask, “what is a good life, really” we’ll arrive at some of those solutions.  

The Festival of Politics event was supported by the Cross-Party Groups on the Wellbeing Economy; and International Development. 

The event was chaired by Paul McLennan MSP, Convener, Cross Party Group on Wellbeing Economy. 

Panellists were Miriam Brett, research fellow, The Democracy Collaborative and the Wellbeing Economy Alliance; Thobile Chittenden, network co-lead, Wellbeing Economy Alliance and Gemma Bone Dodds, senior fellow, Financial Innovation Lab. 

Further reading 

For further information on the wellbeing economy visit WeAll Scotland: Scotland – Wellbeing Economy Alliance ( 

The Alliance has produced a report with recommendations on what the upcoming Wellbeing & Sustainable Development Bill should contain: Towards a Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill :: Scotland’s International Development Alliance ( 

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