Waylaid Dialectic

February 2, 2011

Development as Happiness

Filed under: Development Philosophy — terence @ 7:42 am

A couple of days ago as part of the conference which has confiscated every moment of my spare time over the last two I’m helping organise, I gave a talk on a panel focused on the question ‘what is development?’

While some of the other panelists talked about current trends in development, or how development should be achieved I took a slightly different tack and, rather than talk about means, tried to explain what I think we should be aiming for as ends in development work.

During question time the chair of the session made a comment that I think was directed at me; a comment to the effect that it’s easy (and essentially pointless) to talk about the ends of development because all the tricky questions are in the doing. I disagree. It’s true that the hard stuff is in the doing , but if you don’t have a coherent end goal, you don’t have an ultimate yardstick of success. Nor to you have a means of adjudicating the trade offs that inevitably come in development work. Or, in other words, I think it’s worth thinking at least a little bit about the ultimate ends of development. If you do so you’ll do better development work, in the end.

The short talk that I gave is below.   It’s pitched at a pretty basic level. Believe me, I’m well enough versed in most of the more tricky philosophical challenges that can be leveled at Utilitarianism. If your interested in my take on some of them, go to my old old blog (link in side bar) and search on that word.

If you live or work in the Pacific, I bet you’ve heard the word ‘development’ many times. Be it in the names of the international organisations that work there (the Australian Agency for International Development; New Zealand’s Aid and Development Agency; the United Nations Development Programme; the Asian Development Bank) or in the promises made by politicians (“we’re going to improve the development statistics of our country”; “this province is underdeveloped”; “this project has helped development”) But has anyone ever told you exactly what they mean when they use the term? Ever spoken to you about what development is about? Or what it’s meant to do for people?

In my talk today I’m going to offer a suggestion – my own perspective on what development ought to be about. That word ‘ought’ is an important one. I don’t plan to talk about how development programmes are or about how the world works today. Instead, I’m going to talk about what I think we ought to be aiming for in development work. Our end goal. Our yardstick of success.

My beliefs about what development ought to be are informed by philosophy. Specifically, the philosophy of Utilitarianism. Now, I know what you’re thinking, philosophy? already? on a Monday? before lunch? But the good news is that, while it may be informed by philosophy, the message I want to convey is a simple one: all I’m going to try and convince you today is that the purpose of development should be to make people happy.

I believe development should be about making people happier and about reducing the opposite of happiness: suffering.

To be clear here, when I talk about happiness, I’m talking about something more than the momentary sensation we feel when someone tells a joke. Or the short-lived happiness of someone who’s just drunk 12 beers. What I mean is an overall state of being over a prolonged period of time. How people feel on average, over many days. More happy or less happy.

Even then I’m guessing that happiness might seem to you like a strange goal for development. Too ethereal. Too trivial. Somehow, or in some way, not serious enough. But before you reach that conclusion I want to ask you a question: think about someone that you love. Would you approve of a development project if you knew it was going to cause them to suffer or to be more unhappy for the rest of their lives? Or, to put it another, way is there any reason why you wouldn’t support a project that solved a problem that was making them unhappy, or a project that was guaranteed to make them happier for the rest of their lives?

My guess is that most, if not all of you, want your loved ones to be happy. I know I do. And if this seems right for people you care about, then why not for nations as a whole? Why not for humanity as a whole?

It’s simple I think.

Although the question that follows on from my basic belief is a bit more complicated. And this is that: if happiness is our goal for development, what can we do in practice to promote it? What practical things can people change about their community, their country or the World to make it a happier place?

My answers to this question come from two sources: common sense and the science of happiness.

First, common sense gives us some pretty good pointers about what makes people unhappy, and from this we can develop some good ideas about what we can do to help people live happy lives.

Conflict and violence makes people unhappy – for obvious reasons. Be it wars between nations, or battles between ethnic groups, or domestic violence against women, conflict causes suffering and prevents happiness. So it’s obvious, I think, that development should be in part about preventing conflict where at all possible. Sometimes, it’s not possible of course; there are some wars, like World War 2, which had to be fought but that’s not the case with most conflict. And promoting development should be about preventing it.

Similarly, being tortured, or having to watch one’s family tortured, or being imprisoned without trial is likely to make people unhappy. So development ought to be concerned with promoting core human rights. I think common sense tells us that much.

Moving beyond commonsense, in recent years a lot of work has been undertaken by psychologists and social scientists to determine what makes people happy and what stops them from being happy. This research has spawned a vast literature, including at least one journal devoted solely to the topic. It has also spawned a range of debates, and in some cases heated arguments between researchers (in other words, researching happiness has made some people at least decidedly unhappy). But the research has also unearthed what appear to be some fairly clear facts.

The first of these is that — on average — money, contrary to the old saying, really does make people happy. People with more money tend to be happier than people with less. And countries with more money tend to be happier than countries with less. Importantly though, this relationship is far stronger at lower levels of income or GDP than it is at higher levels. Or to put it another way, money helps most when it’s moving people and countries out of poverty. Beyond that, it still has an impact, but this impact get’s proportionately less.

Another finding that comes across strongly in the research is that health has a major and important role in determining happiness. Being healthier makes you happier research finds. And as someone who has spent much of the past few years struggling with my own health, that makes a lot of sense to me.

Third, research suggests that the nature of people’s family ties play an important role in whether they are happy or not. (Quite possibly we didn’t need research to tell us this?)

I could go on listing factors but time is running out. So I want to conclude by summarising what everything I have just said might mean for development in practice.

In practice, development as happiness means reducing or avoiding conflict where we can, and respecting human rights. It means fostering economic development but at the same time making sure that the fruits of economic development reach those who need them the most: the poor. And it means promoting human development – especially making sure that people have good access to health care.

It also means helping strengthen family and community ties where we can, and being careful not to damage them if at all possible when promoting other changes.

And finally, it means taking care of the environment. Because if we damage it beyond repair. And if our planet collapses around us, then the World isn’t going to be a happy place.

There are lots of difficult questions to do with development. How do we improve governance? How do we tackle poverty? How do we reduce conflict?

But the good news is that the most fundamental question of them all – what is development meant to be about? – is, in my opinion, an easy one to answer. Development should be about happiness.

Thank you.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nadeen Haque, Matt Morris, Alanna Shaikh, How Matters, Ajay Menon and others. Ajay Menon said: Development as Happiness http://su.pr/1vhIE7 […]

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  2. […] For the record, my views on development are underpinned by a moderately troubled Utilitarianism (basic explanation here). […]

    Pingback by Profound Gratitude « Waylaid Dialectic — March 24, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

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