Tuesday, 29 March 2011
"Between the dawn of civilisation and 2003 we only created 5 exabytes of data. Now, we create that every 2 days. By 2020, it will increase 50 times" -Think Quarterly
Google has just come out with a new journal called "Think Quarterly". It is a publication meant for their stakeholders so it is not being written or marketed for the public.
The first edition is on data.
Included in the publication are interviews about the data deluge by Google's Director of Research, Hans Rosling, Google Chief Economist Hal Varian, Laurence Guy, CEO of Vodaphone among many more.
Ok, 10 best places to see sexy data according to Google:
Friday, 25 March 2011
Recent highlights from the Wikiprogress Community Portal
What a month it has been! It seems every time I open a newspaper, click on blog post or turn on the radio someone is talking about the importance of measuring wellbeing. To my delight, my top 3 favourite news sources: The Economist, The New York Times and The Guardian, have all been a part of the March Media Madness. Here are a few highlights I’d like to share with you.
China announced earlier in the month that ‘happiness’ will be an element incorporated in their growth strategy. Many different news sources picked up on this and we have created a Special Media Review on China’s Move the Measure Happiness. A few of the highlights are listed below:
Don't worry, be happy (The Economist 17.03.2011)
All eyes have been on Japan since the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit on the 11th of March. The economic implications of this have had a fair but of negative media time, but here are a few articles that highlight the importance of measuring and appreciating non-economic indicators of human wellbeing.
Why no looting in Japan? (Aidwatch 15.03.2011)
The Impact of Disaster (NewsWeek 20.03.2011)
There have been loads of news items on the UK’s bid to measure happiness since Cameron’s announcement back in November last year. And a fair bit of coverage on happiness in general. Here are a few great articles on the importance’s of measuring happiness.
Stimulating Happiness (New York Times 14.03.2011)
10 steps to happiness (The Guardian 12.03.2011)
And last, but not least, our dear friend Hans Rosling gives a TED talk on the Magic Washing Machine. To see more news items, see the Wikiprogress Community Portal – updated daily with news and blog items from around the world.
Wednesday, 16 March 2011
Friday, 11 March 2011
From guest blogger Jules Evans. This post originally appeared on The Politics of Well-being.
There is a danger that we have become not just trapped in the ‘prison of GDP’, but trapped in the prison of statistics. We have become trapped in the idea that something can only be a serious goal if we can quantify it, measure it, and track our progress towards it on a neat Power Point graph. And we want to use this approach to cure our spiritual malaise. We want a technocratic solution to a spiritual question.
The argument often put forward as to why governments should start to measure well-being is that it will free us from what one British minister calls “the prison of GDP”. We have become ‘trapped’, it is said, in narrow and overly-reductive economic measurements, which don’t capture what truly matters to us. The solution to this, we are told, is to measure what does matter to us: positive emotion, social relations, well-being. But can one really measure well-being? First of all, you need to define it.
Charles Seaford, co-head of the Centre for Well-Being at the new economics foundation in London, said recently that the high-level British policy debate over how to define well-being divided into two camps: the Benthamites and the Aristotelians. The Benthamites, followers of the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, define well-being as ‘feeling good’, and want to measure it by asking the nation how they feel. The Aristotelians, followers of the 4th century Greek philosopher, define well-being as ‘optimal human functioning’, or what Aristotle calledeudaimonia. They want to measure it by asking the nation how autonomous they feel, how socially engaged, how fulfilled, and so on.
The Benthamite approach
I have several problems with the Benthamite or Hedonic approach, of defining well-being as merely ‘feeling good’. Briefly, because others have made these criticisms at greater length and in better prose:
It is overly-simplistic. The Benthamite approach suggests that happiness is one single, homogeneous experience, and that instances of it differ only in intensity and duration. Only statisticians could believe this. This belief displays, in the words of John Stuart Mill, “the empiricism of one who has not experienced very much”. It tries to take the many multi-faceted, multi-cultural, nuanced and subtle experiences of well-being and reduce them to one experience, that can be measured in one question - ‘how happy are you on a ten-point scale?’ Because it’s a bounded scale, people will typically reply ‘about a seven’. Their general levels of well-being may rise over time, but they will still typically reply ‘about a seven’, because they will adapt to their higher levels of well-being. That’s why happiness levels have not risen in the last 30 years - not because our society is broken, but because the method of measuring happiness is limited and cannot reflect absolute rises.
It is vulgar. Bentham, Mill said, suffered from a “deficiency of imagination”. So do his followers. Bentham insisted that only things that make us feel pleasant are worthwhile, therefore ‘pushpin is better than poetry’, because pushpin, a trivial parlour game, creates more pleasant feelings in the masses than poetry. He had no sense that some types of happiness are higher and better than others, and so we should be educated to appreciate them. He also didn’t appreciate that some worthwhile experiences - like watching a tragedy - will actually make us feel sad. The best arts - Shakespeare, Sophocles, The Sopranos - connect us to the full range of human experience, the dark as well as the light.
Utilitarianism, by contrast, tries to turn everything into a moronic happy face. Imagine a TV show or a novel where everyone was happy all the time. It would be unbearably boring.
It fails to recognize the appropriateness of negative emotions. Nature gave us a range of emotional experiences for a reason. Sometimes, it is appropriate to be sad, or angry, or disappointed, or restless. Deifying one feeling is counter-productive, and reduces the rich complexity of life.
It is self-absorbed and anti-civic. Utilitarians think that, if ‘feeling good’ is made the goal of society, everyone will naturally work for other people’s happiness. But why should they? ‘Because it will make them feel good’. But what if it doesn’t? What if visiting my sick mother in hospital actually makes me feel bad? What argument can a Utilitarian make in that instance? Our own pleasant feelings are not a strong and lasting enough guide for sustained moral and civic behaviour.
It is ignoble. If the goal of life, and the goal of society, is simply ‘pleasant feelings’, then why shouldn’t the government give every citizen a ration of MDMA or Prozac, to lift the general level of good feelings? The reason we dislike that idea, is because we recognize there is more to life than ‘bovine contentment’. We don’t want just to feel good. We want lives of genuinely rich activity, engagement, striving, achievement and fulfillment. Feeling good is the bonus to those experiences - it shouldn’t be the goal itself. In fact, an important part of the striving life is moments of dissatisfaction and restlessness. Those emotions have their place in human experience.
What about the Aristotelian approach?
I have more respect for the Aristotelian approach. It captures the fact that human well-being is (in my opinion) about more than simply feeling good. Rather, the ‘feeling good’ is a consequence of fulfilling certain human drives or needs: the need for social engagement, for meaning and purpose, for autonomy, for creativity, and so on. But can we empirically measure this more nuanced and multi-faceted idea of eudaimonia?
Yes, say the Neo-Aristotelians. They include the economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who have come up with a ‘capabilities approach’ to human flourishing, which defines ten core human capabilities. Sen and Nussbaum claim that statisticians can measure the extent to which a society enables a person to fulfill those capabilities.
Another, related approach uses the Self-Determination Theory of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Deci and Ryan say that humans have three core needs or drives: the need for autonomy, social connectedness, and mastery. And again, they insist that statisticians can measure the extent to which an individual or a group has achieved fulfillment in these areas. Their approach has been very influential for the new economics foundation (nef), which describes it as “a modernised, empirically-based version of Aristotle’s theory of eudaimonia.”
And finally, Martin Seligman, inventor of Positive Psychology, also insists that well-being is a multi-faceted experience, which he separates into four domains: hedonic happiness, engaged happiness, achieving happiness and meaningful happiness, each of which can be empirically measured, he insists.
So the Neo-Aristotelians insist that eudaimonia can be measured, just like the Benthamites’ more simplistic idea of happiness. But are they right? Let’s start with Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which has been taken up by the new economics foundation (nef). There’s a lot to like about the theory. It has defined eudaimonia as the fulfillment of three core needs: autonomy, mastery, and social connectedness. But SDT leaves out something pretty fundamental to Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia: virtue. Aristotle said that happiness is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue”. But there’s no mention of virtue in SDT, or in nef’s approach.
One can imagine a person who feels a deep sense of autonomy, mastery and social connectedness, but who is nevertheless morally rotten. A Nazi party functionary in 1930s Germany might feel autonomy, mastery and social connectedness, but we might still insist there was something lacking in their well-being, namely, sound morality. But you can’t measure the soundness of a person’s moral beliefs empirically or scientifically.
Nussbaum and Sen try to introduce some moral capacity into their ten core capabilities. The capabilities include the capacity for emotion - feeling appropriate emotions and attachments - and also the capacity for ‘practical reasoning about the Good’. But can you really scientifically measure the extent to which a person feels appropriate emotion? That involves a subjective moral judgement about what emotions are appropriate, and an Aristotelian would give a different answer to, say, a Stoic, or a Buddhist, or a Freudian, or a Methodist. Again, you can’t measure this empirically and scientifically, because it’s a question of moral belief.
Likewise, you might be able to test a person’s capacity for practical reasoning about the Good, in a philosophy exam for example. But I really don’t see how such a test could be applied to an entire country without being utterly simplistic. And, to really test a person’s level ofeudaimonia, you’d need to see not just how well they can reason about the Good, but how well they actually follow their reasoning and translate it into their lives. How could you test that empirically for an individual, let alone for a nation?
Martin Seligman, finally, insists that science can empirically measure both hedonic happiness, and engaged happiness (or ‘flow’) and meaningful happiness. Perhaps science can measure how good someone feels at a particular moment, but to rely just on hedonic measurements is “morally and politically imprisoning”, he says. I agree. But can science measure engaged happiness and meaningful happiness?
You can measure the extent to which a person is absorbed in an activity. But it is easy to imagine instances where a person is completely absorbed in an activity that is nonetheless unhealthy and toxic - a heroin addict is utterly absorbed in their addiction, for example, as is a video game addict. We have to make some moral judgement about the worth of the activity one is engaged in. A person might dedicate their lives to a novel for example. But is that a worthwhile activity, if they are working on a very bad novel? And one can also easily imagine many instances where a person’s obsession makes their life very unbalanced and myopic. Isn’t an important part of well-being having a balanced life of various different pursuits and fulfillments?
Secondly, Seligman defines meaningful happiness as ‘the feeling of working together with others to serve a higher cause’. But doesn’t a great deal depend on the moral worth of the cause you are serving? You could be marching for the civil rights of minorities, or you could be marching against them with the Ku Klux Klan. Both marchers would feel a sense of meaning, purpose and social engagement -but to decide which of these people is experiencing genuine well-being, we’d need to move beyond empirical measurements of their feelings and make moral judgements about the cause they are serving.
Seligman thinks we can assess how ‘meaningful’ a life is by empirically assessing a person’s own judgement, their friends’ judgements, and ‘some objective societal measure’. But assessing all the tangible and intangible impacts of a person’s life would take a God, not a statistician. To truly weigh up the meaning of a person’s life, you’d have to look centuries into the future after their death...and you’d have to have some idea of what, if anything, awaits humans in the afterlife. Science and statistics can’t tell us anything about our fate after death, which means there is a vast area of uncertainty at the heart of the ‘science of well-being’.
For most humans around the world, personal assessments of our life’s meaning involves beliefs about God and the after-life. Aristotle, Socrates,Plato, the Stoics - they all thought that the ‘purpose’ of man was to contemplate God and serve God. But the Neo-Aristotelian science of functioning tries to cut out this idea of man’s divine purpose, because statistics can’t measure the existence of God. So man, in modern functioning theory, doesn’t really have a function. ‘Man’s function is to fulfill human needs’. But what is the point of that?
The limits of empiricism
There is a danger that we have become not just trapped in the ‘prison of GDP’, but trapped in the prison of statistics. Statistics are the foundation of modern government. They are the cornerstone of the modern faith in the power of technocrats and bureaucrats to control nature, mitigate risk, and make life better. We are realizing now that one can become trapped in statistics, that they can distort and mislead. But our panacea for this sickness is....more statistics.
We have become trapped in the idea that something can only be a serious goal if we can quantify it, measure it, and track our progress towards it on a neat Power Point graph. This is the sacred belief at the heart of our technocratic societies. And we want to use this approach to cure our spiritual malaise. We want a technocratic solution to a spiritual problem.
But it’s just not that simple, sadly. We can’t just clear up the uncertainty and suffering of life with a Power Point presentation, rapturously as such a presentation would be received at TED talks and in the halls of power. There can never be a science of well-being because science can never prove what the purpose of life is, or if it has a purpose, partly because it can never prove what happens after death. Science can measure the quantifiable, but not everything can be reduced to a number. Could you put a number on how much you love your child?
Of course, no one wants a world of rampant moral relativism. I also would like to believe that there is such a thing as a good life, that some lives are better-lived than others. And I recognize that science can help us a great deal in our search for good lives. But, in the words of Aristotle, we should look for precision in such matters “only so far as the subject admits”.
The dangerous unintended consequence of this search for a perfect ‘science of happiness’, this search for ‘facts’ about well-being as opposed to ‘beliefs’, is that the ‘happiness science’ becomes a dogma - with governments telling their citizens ‘this is the way to happiness, and you should follow it’. Governments can of course make moral arguments to their citizens. But I don’t think they can say they have scientifically proven that their model of life is the best - because there is a limit to what can be measured and tested scientifically. And insisting that there is a ‘science of happiness’ takes the search for happiness out of the hands of the individual and puts it in the hands of ‘happiness experts’. Part of the Good Life is finding the Good Life for myself, not simply following some instant happiness recipe handed out by the ministry of happiness.
The constant repetition of the phrase ‘science of happiness’ is in danger of giving the public the impression that science has, or ever could, clear up the question of the meaning of life once and for all. Such is the eagerness of psychologists, economists and policy-makers to affect public policy and win funding, that exalted and inflated claims for this young field are being made in the media, conferences and policy meetings.
But if the politics of well-being is going to be more than a passing fad, if it is going to be legitimate in the eyes of the public and of posterity, then we need to be more humble and more honest, and to admit the limits of our certainty and empirical ability. Socrates suggested that wisdom consists in admitting the limits of our knowledge. Let’s admit what we don’t know and can’t measure.
Thursday, 10 March 2011
8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, Kate Scrivens of the OECD’s Statistics Directorate looks at why women’s overall reported happinness has declined.
One of the most popular television shows on at the moment – “Mad Men” – portrays the lives of advertising executives in the early 1960s. It’s a world where doctors encourage smoking, lunchtime drinking is the norm, and the roles of men and women are very clearly and separately defined. Watching it is a reminder of just how much attitudes have changed in the last half-century, not least in terms of the vastly expanded options available to women today at home and in the work place.
The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s revolutionised female aspirations. Science helped too: birth control allowed women greater control over their sex lives, and innovations such as the vacuum cleaner and the ready-made meal reduced the time spent in household chores. Women today are better paid and better educated than ever before. In a special issue entitled “We Did It!” the Economist reported in 2009 that female labour force participation had hit a record high, with women taking over 50% of all jobs in the United States. Women today seem to be freer than at any other time in history.
And yet, at a time when gender gaps in so many domains are closing or becoming obsolete, a new one has emerged. Studies in North America and Europe have shown that while in the 1970s women reported much higher subjective well-being than men, women’s overall happiness has declined in the last four decades, both in absolute terms and relative to men. What can explain the seeming paradox that during a period when women’s lives have improved so much using objective measures, they have become less contented with their lot?
One possible explanation is the ‘second shift’ phenomenon. While women represent an increasing share of the market workforce, they have also retained the bulk of domestic responsibilities, leading to an overall increase in the amount of work they do. Women returning home from their paid jobs then effectively begin a second shift of unpaid housework such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. In all OECD countries, women spend more time than men – an average of two-and-a-half hours more – on unpaid work (the 2011 edition of “Society at a Glance” will include a special chapter on unpaid work). Perhaps women are less happy with their lives because they have taken on more work?
In fact, as the level of women’s employment increases in a country, men tend to contribute more to unpaid work duties. This means that in terms of total hours worked (paid and unpaid) there is actually little difference between men and women, and so the ‘second shift’ explanation may not hold. However, not all tasks are equally enjoyable – women may be unhappier relative to men because they spend more time doing less pleasurable activities. For example, while both men and women participate in childcare, women tend to spend more time in physical routine tasks like feeding, bathing and changing diapers. Men, on the other hand, tend to take on more of the fun stuff such as reading and playing. In a 2007 paper, Alan Krueger showed that between 1966 and 2005, men have experienced an overall increase in pleasurable activities, while for women the share of time spent in pleasurable activities remained more or less the same.
The change in the proportion of time spent on pleasurable activities might explain why women’s happiness has not increased, but doesn’t account for a decline in and of itself. However, the comparison with men’s activities just might. With equality of opportunities, women have higher expectations now, and may now need more to be happy. Whereas in earlier times women may have compared themselves primarily to other women, their reference group now includes men. Although the gender gap has closed in many areas, there are still plenty of examples of lower outcomes for women, such as average wage levels.
The increasing complexity of women’s lives is another potential source of declining happiness. With more opportunities come more responsibilities and potential stress. If women feel pressure, or put pressure on themselves, to excel in every aspect of their lives, they may be less satisfied now than when home life was their sole or primary realm. It could also be that women have been more negatively affected than men by other broad social trends such as decreased social cohesion, increasing income inequality, or higher divorce rates.
One of the consequences of easier access to divorce has been an increasing proportion of sole parent families headed by women. A number of studies have shown that caring for children has a negative impact on happiness holding everything else constant. This might also contribute to the gender happiness gap.
However, it also points to the limitations of happiness as an all-encompassing measure of how well things are going. By way of contrast, if one looks at measures of having a sense of “meaning or purpose in life”, one finds that having children is a good thing. People with children are much more likely to feel they have a sense of meaning or purpose in life.
The gains made by the women’s movement in moving towards gender equality have been staggering, and women continue to show by the choices they make in their lives that they embrace the range of opportunities now available to them. Perhaps what equal opportunity has brought women, is not so much happiness, as the right to search for it.
Wednesday, 9 March 2011
The Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom has released a survey asking 200 000 people to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10. It is the UK’s largest household survey and responses will be used as part of the ONS programme to measure national wellbeing. Questions include:
• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
Wikiprogress has been gathering news items on the UK move to measure happiness since David Cameron’s announcement back in mid-November last year. See the special media review for all related news and blogs.
A few of my favorite articles from the media review that I want to share with you:
Happiness = Work, sleep and bicycles (BBC 25.02.2011)
Statisticians to tackle ticklish issue of happiness (The Financial Times 24.02.2011)
How are you feeling today? Let the Government know in £2m 'well-being' survey (The Mail Online 25.02.2011)
And to finish… a few fast facts on the UK that you won’t find in the media review:
The UK climbed from ranking 108th on the Happy Planet Index (HPI) in 2006 to 74th on the 2009 HPI. The UK ranks 6th in the world for GDP (IMF 2010), 31st on the 2010 Global Peace Index and 26th on the 2010 Human Development Index. The UK has a total population of 61,838,154 (World Bank 2009) and a life expectancy at birth of 80 years (World Bank 2008).
(In case you missed it, Laura Stoll from the Centre of Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation blogged for us on last week on Measuring our progress: The power of well-being. The nef report)Philippa Lysaght
Tuesday, 8 March 2011
Today, Wikigender celebrates its third birthday. Launched on International Women’s Day by the OECD Development Centre three years ago, this web 2.0 knowledge sharing platform focusing on gender equality issues has become a global reference point.
Originally set up to bring the debate on gender equality closer to individuals by fostering opportunities for data sharing on measures of gender equality, Wikigender has now become a lively virtual space where academics, gender experts, policy makers, statisticians, economists, development practitioners and students can actively participate and contribute to the platform on a variety of gender equality issues.
We are happy to report some key statistics:
- Over 20,000 unique visitors monthly from 180 countries, with sharp growth over the past 12 months
- Top 3 countries visiting Wikigender: U.S.A; India; U.K
- 1, 069 editors
- 1, 179 articles
Engaging with the worldwide gender community
Wikigender cannot exist alone. It only works in cooperation with other organisations such as Inter Press Service, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Finance Corporation amongst others. Wikigender also uses Facebook and Twitter as a main part of the communications strategy, delivering timely and efficient messages from the site to the broader community. The success of the platform could only come by really engaging with the worldwide gender community. Keeping it inside the OECD would not have served its purpose, nor would partnering with a couple of international organisations, with experts filling in the gaps. Yes, Wikigender enjoys many visits, new articles and edits from experts; however, a lot of rich information also comes from students and the interested public. Among the most visited focus areas of the site are the country pages and the community portal.
Wikigender country pages give an overview of gender equality and are constantly being updated by our community of users. Originally the country pages only presented information relating to our Social Institutions and Gender Index for the 124 countries covered by the index, while the remaining countries presented information such as women’s political empowerment, women’s legal empowerment, employment discrimination, and educational parity.
Progressively, all country notes are being reviewed to include both information from the index and a general overview in those key areas. In addition, we have started to partner with other organisations to add new gender equality perspectives to the country notes – and we welcome new additions!
- 31 African countries include the campaign “Africa for Women’s Rights: Ratify and Respect!” by the FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
- 128 countries have a dimension on the Women, Business and the Law 2010 report by the World Bank Group
- 78 countries have a dimension on the FAO Gender and Land Rights Database
The Community Portal is another top hitting feature of Wikigender: each month, we focus on the gender equality issues that are the most reported in the media, and all Wikigender users are invited to add interesting articles they find in the press. Our current focus is specifically dedicated to the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which is widely covered in the media.
Going further: Wikigender University
A lot more can be done through Wikigender. As an accessible platform, we have been working on developing programmes that will bring even more depth to the content of the site. Wikigender University is a programme currently in development. Targeting specifically students, professors and academics, this programme’s main objective is to bring together a range of universities to foster networking opportunities, create synergies with classrooms and web 2.0 technologies by adding Wikigender content to curriculums, as well as building the site further technically and substantively with the help of university students.
Wikigender started to pilot this programme last year with Paris-based universities (the Institut d’Études Politiques (Sciences Po) and the American University of Paris) whereby students got directly involved in the development of the platform by:
- creating new and innovative content
- bringing their expertise in editing existing articles, and
- promoting the site’s content through Facebook and a Twitter account specifically created for students who are members of Wikigender University.
The students reported that they found their capacity for gender research, editorial skills and information sharing using a web 2.0 tool greatly enhanced thanks to this programme. 2011 looks like a promising year as Wikigender has started to promote the concept in other countries like Mexico, Brazil, Uganda and Argentina. We are also receiving spontaneous requests from universities abroad.
If you sign up on Wikigender, you will get monthly newsletters from the Wikigender team, partners and editors which will keep you abreast of opportunities for gender research on Wikigender, information on how you can get involved in the Wikigender programmes and more.
Estelle Loiseau - Wikigender
Friday, 4 March 2011
Why are some countries more peaceful than others? How can readily available empirical data inform us of the key economic, social, political and cultural factors which underpin peace? Can the identification of social, political, economic, governance and cultural ‘structures’ inform policymakers in government, business and civil society on how to build a more peaceful society?
The “Structures of Peace” help pinpoint specific areas that countries can target to improve peacefulness. Rather than just measuring peace, the GPI research shows that a fact-based approach can also help us come closer to building peace and achieving societal progress.
Institute for Economics & Peace
Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Ever heard about “shared social responsibility” (SSR)? I hadn’t, I have to confess. “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) rings a bell, but what SSR stands for I had no clue, at least since yesterday. I am just back in the office from a two day mission to Brussels where I participated in a co-organized event by the Council of Europe and the EU commission on: “Shared social responsibility – securing trust and sustainable social cohesion in a context of transition”. The conference objectives was to discuss the draft of a “European Charter on shared social responsibilities” portrayed as “an alternative to the status quo…..creating a framework for developing action strategies that can provide everyone with an acceptable degree of control over their lives in a context of co-decided priorities”. Uff!
In a more simpler language I understood that this means get us citizens engaged to become more involved in dealing with all sorts of issues in a “transition” context, while transition stands for all sorts of problems, challenges and evils European societies are facing today. From a marketing point of view the concept is quite appealing: the “social” addresses the concerns of the more social democratic public while “responsibility” nicely resonates with the more liberal folks. And who would oppose to any “sharing”?
Three questions immediately come to mind:
First, why do we need this charter and why now? Listening to the president of the EU commission, José Barrosso, the current model of European growth and welfare is broken and needs urgently to be revitalized. In fact, I was very surprised how many speakers highlighted their worries with contemporary Europe: low growth, fierce competition, high inequalities, high youth un-employment, social exclusion ….. an impressive laundry list of all the malaises was discussed. But, is this really a good starting point for a new vision? Where is the positive entry point? You can – at least I felt – hardly build a new, inspiring vision only on fear, anxiety and weakness. Luckily, at the end of the two day conference, the American Harvard professor Peter A. Hall reminded us of the many strengthens Europe can still rely on, notably its long tradition of sharing common values relating to social cohesion and solidarity.
Secondly, what’s new and where is the beef? Have we not had more than 20 years of debate on the social economy, third sector, voluntary organizations and corporate social responsibilities? After two days of debate, I am now more convinced that there is indeed something pecuniary about putting out a new vision today. The crisis has amplified some of the structural problems in Europe, leading to an immense piling up of public debt with public authorities having more and more difficulties to perform basic functions. Europe urgently needs a vision – beyond the day-to-day management of the Euro crisis and competitive pact design - which can bind together different strata of the population. Does this remind us of the concept of “Big Society” currently discussed in the UK? Yes it does – it was said though, that the current debate is too focussed on “shifting responsibilities” and not on “sharing”, which has a different slant.
How to make it work? Jean Lambert, member of the European Parliament, questioned whether the different stakeholders are already ready to take up this new role of “responsibility”. Do the different stakeholders have the time and the skills to get involved – where is the space where the different actors could meet and discuss, she asked in her intervention? It is very clear that for an active engagement of other stakeholders than the state, such as businesses and civil society organizations, the purpose and outcomes of consultations need to be clear.
To boost and scale up the engagement of local citizens in the spirit of a “shared social responsibility” will take some time and effort and the state needs to be acting as a key actor to allow the other stakeholders to flourish. Social networks are not only a source for personal well-being and risk sharing but can also lead to spin-offs for the whole society, breeding social innovations. Peter Hall called it the “social multiplier effect”. Governments need to check if their policies are supporting and not damaging the social fabric of societies and social connectives. This network capital should be activated and harnessed to make social cohesion work through shared social responsibilities.
In a nutshell, the idea of sharing social responsibilities is inspiring; not only for Europe but also beyond. The difficult question is how to make it work in societies where different strata of the population opt out – is the Facebook generation interested in taking its share of “social responsibility” one might, for instance, ask.
What will be the future of this charter? It is far too early to say if its final fate is to end up on the shelf of European member states or if it helps to set out the fundament of a new vision for Europe and therefore will shape a new political and social agenda, a new “ethical imperative” (Hall). I personally wish for the latter. Is SSR the solution to foster well-being for all? Certainly not, but it is a compelling framework to be used as a guidance for public policy making, for designing a modern form of stakeholder relation based on the principles of deliberative processes and accountability as well as for fostering social cohesion in a continent struggling to find its place in a shifting world context.