Scotland can help show the world what real economic progress could look like

Written by Dr Katherine Trebeck on 21 January 2019 in Comment

Dr Katherine Trebeck, Policy and Knowledge Lead at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, on how Scotland can help design an economy in service of the collective good

Image credit: ESA

Scotland is entering 2019 surrounded by uncertainties, in the shape of Brexit, the ever-present constitutional question, and party politics in turmoil.

We shouldn’t be surprised, given the uncertainties swirling around daily life, that ever more people are grasping for something different, whether the apparently simple solutions offered at the ballot box, stepping outside the mainstream into alternative lifestyles or grasping for apparently easy ways to cope in the face of tumult and precariousness.

This individual recognition that change is needed is increasingly mirrored in the economy writ large, with growing calls to find a different direction. It needs a new purpose that recognizes that our growth-oriented economy is now offering a diminishing suite of benefits and often even increasing harm.

In the depressingly circular logic of failure demand, growth is required in order to pay for fixing the harm done in the creation of the growth, but this growth is pursued while disregarding the environmental and social consequences.

Oxfam has revealed today that the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw their wealth decline by 11 per cent last year. At the same time as the poorest had to make do with less, billionaires’ fortunes rose 12 per cent – or $2.5 billion a day. This inequality epidemic undermines the fight against poverty, but it also contributes to the widespread desire for change.

Against this background, in November last year I joined over 3,000 people in Incheon in South Korea for the sixth Wellbeing Forum, hosted by the OECD’s statistics unit which has been at the forefront of measuring quality of life for over a decade.

Nobel laureates and royalty joined with statisticians, civil servants, and academics to debate and learn from each other about the state of play in measurement and the implications for policy making.

Amongst it all, Scotland was making its presence felt.

Surrounded by experts and practitioners from around the world, Scotland’s Chief Economist took to the stage and gave cause for hope as he launched the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) partnership.

WEGo brings together national and regional governments, led by Scotland and joined by the likes of New Zealand and Iceland. It will promote sharing of expertise and best practice in designing an economy in service of collective good.

The stated objectives of WEGo are to: collaborate in pursuit of innovative policy approaches to create wellbeing economies; progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals; and address the pressing economic, social and environmental challenges of our time.

The primary mechanism to advance these goals is a Policy Lab through which government officials will share relevant experience and expertise. In 2019 WEGo’s first Policy Lab will take place (hopefully here in Scotland) and an inaugural gathering of Senior Officials and Ministers from member states is planned to discuss progress in creating wellbeing economies.

Gary Gillespie, the Chief Economist for the Scottish Government, whose office is the secretariat for WEGo, described it as ‘bringing the economic lens back in’ to the wellbeing agenda. Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz described WEGo as a ‘fascinating and important initiative of these governments: putting wellbeing into practice’.

Professor Stiglitz also spoke of the importance of persisting – and this has been the story of getting WEGo to where it is now. It has been a bumpy road as political changes altered the priorities of potential member governments (and government personnel). But while WEGo is still a small, fledging project, it has potential to shift the conversation about how economies are designed, how they work, and what they deliver.

In our new book The Economics of Arrival: ideas for a grown-up economy, my co-author Jeremy Williams and I reimagine what global economic progress could mean if it stops meaning growth. We set out a vision of an economy that works for all, as well as the steps to get there.

The agenda of fighting for survival could be over if the economy were to engage with a new challenge: building ourselves a lasting home in this place of plenty.

Scotland is a prime candidate to be one of the first world economies to embrace the reality that it has arrived and now needs to make itself at home – sharing wealth better and making better use of resources.

The Scottish Government is well placed to lead the fight against inequality, having already laid the foundations to begin building a fairer country and flying the flag for wellbeing economies at the global level.  What’s needed now is for Scotland to build on this progress, embed the changes needed to move into action and demonstrate to the rest of the world that we may be a small country, but our ideas are big.

Dr Katherine Trebeck is the Policy and Knowledge Lead at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance

Dr Trebeck will be launching ‘The Economics of Arrival: ideas for a grown-up economy’ (published by Policy Press) on Wednesday 30 January at Blackwells bookshop, Edinburgh. The book is available at https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/the-economics-of-arrival

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