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Wellbeing Indices – case study of the Oxfam Humankind Index

Interview with Katherine Trebeck, Senior Researcher at Oxfam Scotland, about the Humankind Index
Oxfam Scotland has launched the Humankind Index in 2012 as a new way to measure what makes a good life. Can you explain the motivation and reasoning behind this initiative? So some of the rationale behind creating the Humankind Index was born of a series of research and discussions that we held across Scotland that revealed that there’s been too much of a focus on economic growth in a very narrow sense without enough regard to its quality or its distribution. And what we wanted to do in creating the Humankind Index was create a product or a tool, if you like, for policymakers that gave them a much wider set of issues that we wanted them to focus on.
And what was really key is we also wanted to put the voices of seldom heard people at the forefront of creating that model, that idea of what success and progress is for Scotland. We wanted it to be very much focusing on people’s voices, the voices of people who are not often heard. How was the Humankind Index constructed? So we spent a lot of time going out to communities and creating spaces for them, relaxed spaces where we tried to reduce every barrier that they might have in participating. So for example, we’d pay for people’s childcare, for their transport. And we recognise that people were giving their time to us as well. So we reimbursed them a little bit for that time.
So we tried to take away every barrier to participation, and then create spaces for conversations, all sorts of different mixed methods, things like big community meetings, small focus groups, street stores and shopping centres, and online survey. But at the heart of all of those different methodologies was really reaching out to people and saying, what is it that you need to live well in your community? What role do people and communities have in shaping the kind of society we want? Well I guess people, by definition, are the society. But the problem is that we see from a lot of survey evidence that people feel that their voices are not being heard.
They feel they don’t have an influence on the direction of their community, let alone the world at large. And so I think that’s a huge task to take the time to reach out, listen to people, understand their concerns, and then reflect and respond to those concerns. And that’s what really was at the heart of the Humankind Index was trying, in a really small way, to close that gap a little bit. There are now quite many national and international initiatives to get away from GDP as the sole indicator of a nation’s success. A very recent example is the sustainable development goals. Do you think these kind of measures are the right step in the right direction?
All of them are, because all of them are born of this recognition that if we have a narrow focus on GDP as a proxy for success of a country, then that’s taking us in the wrong direction. So anything that starts from the premise that GDP is a flawed measure of progress is a huge contribution to the debate. What we’ve seen though is this flourishing of different types of initiatives. And I heard one person once describe it as the Wild West of beyond GDP initiatives. And I think we’re at that stage where there’s so many of them, very different methodologies, but they’re all created with different purposes, different objectives behind them.
And I think we need to start thinking about having different indices or different projects for different purposes. And that requires a much more sophisticated understanding of what it is we’re trying to measure. And the thing is there will be no easy solution. There will be no one catch all measure that does every job we need it to do.

We’ve already heard about a number of initiatives at international and national level that try to measure a country’s performance in a more holistic way rather than by looking at economic output alone.

Oxfam is one notable example of a third-sector organisation that has developed their own wellbeing measure. The Oxfam Humankind Index was developed in collaboration with the New Economics Foundation, the Carnegie UK Trust and others to measure prosperity in Scotland. Based on a large-scale consultation involving around 3000 people, it sets out 18 factors of prosperity, including among others social relations, health, employment, the physical environment or financial security. In particular the need for better indicators for good quality work and to take into account the relationship between family and friends is emphasised.

We talk to Dr Katherine Trebeck, Senior Researcher at Oxfam Scotland, to learn more about the motiviation behind and the construction of the Oxfam Humankind Index.

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