Is ‘well-being’ the future of philanthropy and development? Report from Bellagio…


Barry Smith


Barry Smith

The first three-day session of a marathon two-week summit on The Future of Philanthropy and Development in the Pursuit of Well-Being kicked off this week at the Bellagio Center on Lake Como. Convened by the Resource Alliance in partnership with the Institute of Development Studies and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bellagio Initiative will bring together over 100 people from the world of philanthropy and development, as well as leaders in other sectors, in four successive sessions. The first session, with about 40 participants, is focused on ‘trends and opportunities in development and philanthropy in the 21st century’ – daunting stuff, indeed!

The first day opened with a keynote panel discussion involving Jay Naidoo, global chair of GAIN (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition), civil society activist, and former businessman, government minister and trade unionist from South Africa, and Marco Mira D’Ercole from the OECD Statistics Directorate.

Jay stressed the urgency of the moment. Globally, we are reaching ‘a tipping point’ with a multi-dimensional crisis that combines financial instability with food insecurity, an ecological emergency, rampant urbanization, growing inequality and pervasive poverty. ‘Politics is at the core of our challenge,’ said Jay. As philanthropy and development players, we need to turn our attention from the ‘supply side to the demand side’, resourcing and facilitating citizen activism for ‘well-being’ and people’s organizations that can claim rights, press for social justice and reclaim human dignity. Currently, we have ‘an army of philanthropists’ (and development bureaucrats) who see development as a linear, ‘sausage-machine’ process, and who have fallen a bit too much in love with the siren call of philanthro-capitalism. We have to recognize that engagement with governments and policy is critical, as well as much more substantial efforts to ensure the social accountability of governments and regional and global agencies.

Marco spoke about OECD efforts to move beyond measurement of only economic indicators of human progress. Innovative tools like the OECD Better Life Index are making it possible to gauge human well-being around issues of identity, connections with others, community, capabilities, culture, gender and non-financial forms of inequality. Such innovations open up possibilities to shift the development paradigm, bringing ‘well-being’ to the centre of our work in place of narrow, economistic objectives and measures.

In the afternoon plenary session Caroline Anstey, a managing director at the World Bank, fresh from the G20 meeting, said that the old balance of world political and economic power is definitely over, and a new development paradigm beyond the worn out ‘aid system’ is needed. We must recognize that private financial flows that can be tapped for development (like remittances from overseas workers) now exceed the total of official aid disbursements. The existing development system (including its philanthropic and civil society components) must become more open, accountable, participatory and inclusive of the ‘voice’ of citizens. The current development landscape of fragmentation and silos is a huge problem – the one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, and the potential for collaboration and pooling assets for greater impact is being stifled.

Steve Radelet, chief economist at USAID, struck a more optimistic chord, noting that recent years have seen major advances which have lifted large numbers of people out of poverty. There are more functioning democracies than ever before, and the emergence of new technologies and new forms of philanthropy have widened the scope for both innovation and impact.

Former minister of finance in Egypt Samir Radwan cited the example of the ‘Arab Spring’, which shows that economic growth is not enough – the protestors in Egypt were clearly articulating a vision of ‘well-being’ that consists of ‘dignity, freedom and social justice’. The key triggers for uprisings in the Arab countries have been increasingly inequality, lack of jobs, and the lack of job prospects for young people in particular. But he quickly ran into the dilemma of these troubled economic times: how can we redress the huge social justice deficit in an environment of austerity and fiscal crisis?

Ramesh Singh of the Open Society Institute affirmed the need to move to a paradigm of development that embraces quality of life on a larger canvas, including political, ecological, social and spiritual dimensions. We can no longer deal only with economic poverty, and should move beyond the categories of ‘the poor’ and ‘poverty reduction’. Noting, as Caroline Anstey did, that few people surveyed self-identify as ‘poor people’, Ramesh suggested that we are called to engage with other human identities (including our identity as ‘citizens’). Development and philanthropy should not focus narrowly on the allocation of money and material resources. Increasingly, we must strengthen ‘the currency of social solidarity’, which has in recent years been much undervalued.

In breakaway groups, work got under way around mapping obstacles to, and drivers of, ‘well-being’ in the wider system in which we operate. The groups also attempted to map key players and institutional relationships in what the Initiative calls ‘the philanthropy and development eco-system’.

Day one of the Bellagio dialogue left me encouraged about the possibilities for bridging the ‘development/philanthropy’ divide and creating a more joined-up community of practice across that divide. But it also raised some questions about the virtues of bringing the notion of ‘well-being’ to the centre of our thinking about development and philanthropy. The Bellagio facilitators were reluctant to define ‘well-being’, encouraging us to embrace a diversity of interpretations (conditioned by culture, class and place) that may come into conflict with each other. The ‘well-being’ perspective may require us to deal with the complexities of a pluralist world in which there is no definitive or universal model of ‘living well’ as citizens or communities. From another angle, it may help to frame our work in a more fully human, integrated, and less reductionist vision of social development.

At the same time, I worried that the framing of social challenges and opportunities in terms of ‘well-being’ may be a bit vague, warm and fuzzy. Does it run the risk of fudging or obscuring the vivid realities of poverty, inequality, social alienation and exclusion, human rights and social justice at the heart of the current crisis? Cynics might be tempted to wonder whether the ‘well-being’ debate is just another diverting fashion or sideshow for the development and philanthropy set.

One way or the other, the ground on which we stand is shifting fast. The old paradigms for development and philanthropy will not hold, and the timing of the Bellagio Initiative could not be better. It’s up to us to make the best of this remarkable opportunity for rethinking and reshaping our field for the new world that is unfolding at a precipitous and unsettling pace.

Barry Smith is an independent consultant for development and philanthropy, based in South Africa.

Tagged in: Accountability Bellagio Initiative Government Overseas aid Wellbeing

Comments (1)

Professor Allister McGregor (IDS, and director of Bellagio Initiative)

Barry, Thanks for a good balanced read of your experience at Bellagio. As one of the architects to the Bellagio Initiative from IDS and someone who has been working on how to make the wellbeing concept work practically in development policy and practice for over ten years now (see, I can assure you that we thought long and hard about how to cope with the issue of wellbeing 'vague, warm and fuzzy'. In the end we concluded that what mattered was not the detail of the wellbeing approach (which would have taken us an age to explore), but that wellbeing captured a new zeitgeist in development and philanthropic effort. Jay Naidoo wanted to frame it as social justice, others at the meeting wanted to use it to encompass 'dignity' and 'voice'. No problem, for me the point was that it describes a common direction of travel (a new values platform) that we can get on board with in order to change what currently doesn't work. After Bellagio we can explore the various more 'precise, cool and hard' initiatives on new measures of wellbeing, such as the OECD Measuring Wellbeing initiative as described by Marco Mira d'Ercole at the meeting (see,3746,en_2649_201185_48791306_1_1_1_1,00.html). We can also explore the many new methodologies that a whole range of different development people are working on to better and more systematically engage with what really matters to people. I thought that what came out very clearly from the discussions is that there are big politics at play in how we frame our problems and that an important first step is building a coalition for getting some momentum for change away from the present 'business as usual' paralysis.

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