Geof Wood, July 2004

Professor of International Development
Department of Economics and International Development
University of Bath
Claverton Down
Bath BA2 7AY

Email: [email protected]
Tel: (0)1225 826736

Paper prepared for:


WeD/Bath and WIDER/UN University, Helsinki

2-4 JULY 2004

Hanse Wissenschaftkolleg, Delmenhorst, Bremen, Germany


This paper is not a philosophical one. It seeks to move rather rapidly from a theoretical point of departure to a series of, in principle, observable indicators, which might constitute part of the agenda for the empirical research of well-being. It is also not exhaustive in claiming a comprehensive account of well-being. Instead it addresses, axiomatically, a sub-set of ideas within a broader set of conceptions about well-being. Thus it sees the problem of security as a major element in the understanding of well-being. Even as a sub-set of well-being issues, security and insecurity have many dimensions only some of which are pursued here. The approach adopted here reflects debates about vulnerability and livelihoods, and operates with a strong sense of time, opportunity, choice and risk. Although for some, the idea of security is inextricably associated with law and order and rights, here the focus is more upon the informal and social conditions for predictability of well-being rather than the statutory context for it. It tries to identify those ingredients of behaviour which are, or could be, in the control of ordinary people in poor situations, given modest policy support. The issue of predictability is central to the theme of this paper.

The broader conceptual elements of WED at Bath deploy three main traditions: a universalist approach to human need; a resources profile approach to understanding livelihoods dynamics; and a set of insights into quality of life, relying strongly upon a subjective notion of well-being. All three of these traditions impinge upon a focus on predictability and security. Of course, behind these traditions lie others which offer enrichment to the well-being theme. Clearly the capability arguments primarily associated with Sen, derived from a prior set of more precise propositions about entitlements, and also drawing upon Rawls' notions of primary goods. There are also anthropological accounts of the 'good life' associated with Redfield and, later, Bailey inter alia. Even further back, we should not forget the importance of what might be called the alienation tradition--the forerunner of the structure/agency dyad pervasive across the social sciences. Theories about access and discontinuities between peasant and bureaucratic rationalities embodied assumptions both about what is valued and the organisational conditions under which rights and entitlements could be realised. The associated arguments about labelling and interface further revealed the distortions of the universal meted out to the local: i.e. the power structures through which conformity and alienation denied self-actualisation of culture as expressed through the words and deeds of the subjective good life. Later 'development' themes about participation and governance also have their place in the more fundamental lexicon about senses of belonging, membership, choice and influence over personal destiny: social local rights metamorphasising into political and universal ones. Even counter, alternative and post-development ideas can be understood as a continuation of the self-actualisation theme, celebrating cultural relativism over modern universalism. It is an irony that the universalist proposition about autonomy (in THN) lends itself more to relativist self-actualisation than it does to globalised modernist principles.

All these themes come into the story about predictability and security as a function of well-being. It is a primordial instinct to seek safety for oneself and valued others. Thus there is an additional aspect to be opened up in our discourse: the avoidance of fear about safety. The subjective and fearful feelings of anxiety and panic about safety are common to all humans as a sense of ill-being, but these are exaggerated for some categories of the population due to non-idiosyncratic, systemic vulnerability, characterised by a weak control over personal destiny. Clearly there are a multitude of propositions about political economy, inequality and powerlessness which lie behind that weak control. But essentially, fear and security are inversely related. So if fear is a key element of ill-being, so security is a key part of its resolution and thus a feature of well-being. Fear is strongly associated with the unknown, with uncertainty and unpredictability. It is associated with not knowing if one has the resources (mental, material and social) to cope with unassessable challenges. It is not knowing if one can discharge emotional and cultural responsibilities for kin and friends. It is not knowing whether one can protect oneself or offer protection to valued others in the present and future. Those who can, invest considerable resources in mitigating fear by reducing risk of failure and decline in all forms of well-being (emotional, material, objective and subjective). Those who cannot, remain in fear which thus becomes a prevalent condition in countries with a high incidence of poverty. And an inability to invest derives not only internally from constrained resources (of all kinds) but also externally from uncertainty.

These arguments touch on an emerging debate with the THN proposition that autonomy and health are the key two universals for all, to be pursued through varying sets of needs satisfiers. Health, of course, is a form of security or safety. But the relation between autonomy and security is more problematical. Autonomy is not always a precondition for security: not sufficient, and also not always necessary. The realities of power and inequality mean that autonomy and security need to be disentangled conceptually, even though we may all agree that sustained or 'quality' security can only be an outcome of autonomy. However the reality of well-being for many poor people globally is that their security is achieved through asymmetrical loyalty to or dependence on other powerholders, whether formal or informal: i.e. under constrained conditions of choice and agency. Indeed, depending on the timeline chosen for the analysis, is there a trade-off between autonomy and security for poor people with weak control over personal destiny as manifested through either capability and access, or their profile of resources? The timeline issue distinguishes between value driven and analytic judgements about the quality of security. Short term security achieved at the expense of dependency may be valued less by the ethical philosopher than the impossible dream of higher value security which embodies the principle of autonomy as outlined in THN. One resists the Keynesian cliché at this point--but the issue is taken up again below. Meanwhile, for this paper, security is adopted as a proxy for well-being.

The intention in the next section is to present a series of 12 analytic statements about the security dimension of well-being which have been distilled from previous writing. The following section outlines a series of 7 principles, derived from these statements, through which the security dimension of well-being could be improved. That discussion leads into a summary description and justification of the indicators of change which could realise those principles. It is these indicators which become the research agenda for the empirical analysis of this dimension of well-being.