All is not well with the view of Mzansi

Ideas

All is not well with the view of Mzansi

The difference between a global north perception and a global south reality makes a strong case for wellbeing in South Africa to be redefined

Serena Hawkey

In a world where the measure of wellbeing is often wealth and social status, people in developing nations usually rank lower than their developed-world counterparts.
But South African scientists say these measurements ignore key aspects of an individual’s quality of life, particularly relationships. They argue that the difference is between a global north perception and a global south reality.
In findings presented at a conference at the University of the Western Cape on March 26, Human Sciences Research Council scholars said focusing on poverty and inequality might limit the way we understand wellbeing and what is needed to achieve it.
The conference reflected HRSC research into poverty and inequality, dedicating a session to the concept of wellbeing and why the country fares so poorly on global rankings.The Wellbeing Research Group of eight junior and 11 senior academics spent six months reviewing research, policies and interventions from across the global south that were designed to improve wellbeing.
Conference presentations suggested the conventional starting point for the measurement of wellbeing may be wrong. Asking different questions might provide greater insights.
While the academics acknowledged the traditional quantitative measurements – material possessions, economic status, psychological circumstances and social setting – as important factors, they said the importance of relationships and how people function within the social setting were significant qualitative factors in the global south.
They argued that these relationships – to other people, the state, the environment and power – were of core importance to people, and the success of these defined an individual’s sense of relative wellbeing.The researchers said that if a more holistic approach were adopted, including human functioning, capabilities and needs, livelihoods and resources, the rankings would be different.
A more nuanced understanding of the drivers of wellbeing may help in designing policies and interventions to eradicate poverty and lessen inequality, they argued.
However, they cautioned against a blanket eradication of quantitative economic measurements, acknowledging that colonisation and capitalism had influenced the way people view wellbeing. Imported paradigms had played a major role in dictating what values “should” correspond to wellbeing, they said.The effect of this on an individual’s ability to influence their own destiny could result in a sense of powerlessness about changing the future.
“Our measurements of wellbeing to date have failed to capture the myriad internalised effects of living in oppressive environments, and how these limit freedom,” said researcher Sharlene Swartz.
The HSRC team hope their study, which was commissioned by the Mandela Initiative at the University of Cape Town, will help determine whether a new national wellbeing index should be pursued.
• Serena Hawkey is on an SIT Study Abroad programme with Round Earth Media.

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