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Focusing on people's wellbeing
Building climate resilience in the developing world will require shifting the focus of development from economic growth to wellbeing.
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Climate change in the developing world: time to focus on people and wellbeing

Building climate resilience in the developing world will require shifting the focus of development from economic growth to wellbeing, says John Carstensen

To fund and deliver climate resilience in the developing world, it can’t be looked at in isolation but must be part of a programmatic, integrated approach to development – the focus of our two previous articles. So how should this programme be set up and orientated to achieve the best outcomes?

Traditionally, international development has focused on poverty alleviation, with the goal being to help those with the lowest incomes achieve a basic economic standard of living. This remains an important goal, but it is also increasingly clear that there are many dimensions to poverty which are not economic. People’s access (or lack of access) to clean air, clean water, education, healthcare and justice makes a huge difference to their wellbeing, as does their level of protection from human and environmental threats. This range of factors is reflected in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and, ideally, development investment should be aligned with all of them.

Finding suitable metrics to measure factors such as environmental quality, security and resilience is challenging, because of their complexity and, in some cases, subjectivity. But it is possible to get around this by considering people’s wellbeing as the primary concern. One developing country where this has been put into effect is Bhutan, where gross national happiness is an index with greater official standing than GDP. Rather than constantly pursuing economic growth, the government in Bhutan judges its success or failure on whether it is making its citizens happy. Major projects and policy decisions are therefore shaped by weighing their effect on the full range of social outcomes that might affect happiness, not just economic costs and benefits.

Putting wellbeing front and centre will mean that the question of climate resilience is integrated neatly within this. People need to feel a level of security from climate change impacts – whether they are food shortages due to drought or property being swept away by floods – before they can achieve a comfortable level of wellbeing.

The Office for National Statistics in the UK, and others around the world, have grappled with the question of how to measure wellbeing accurately. It is not a straightforward thing to do. However, this partly reflects the complexity of the various systems that govern our lives, health, transport, education and climate, for example. In making decisions about infrastructure we need to fully appreciate how these systems interact to influence social outcomes. The exact measure used to capture the myriad factors affecting wellbeing is less important than the recognition that such a rounded view is necessary, and that people are at the heart of it.

This way of thinking should not be limited to development financing, but should also come into our approach to economic development in higher income countries. We can’t continue to pursue an exploitative economic model that relies on the extraction of new natural resources to fuel constant economic growth; – these resources are finite and fast running out. Instead, we should seek to ensure our populations have what they need for a decent quality of life, at the same time as keeping consumption within the limits of the earth’s capacity. This is the principle behind ‘doughnut economics’, a term coined by economist Kate Raworth and a model which is increasingly gaining attention. The aim is to have the majority of the world’s population living within a band of prosperous co-existence with the planet, avoiding the extremes of poverty and unsustainable over-consumption. Living within this band is also the way to maximise general happiness and wellbeing.

Higher income countries have every incentive to encourage developing nations to build and grow in an environmentally responsible way – and to practise what they preach.Part of the key to doing this is to ‘green’ the financing system, so that finance for development is not perpetuating a polluting and socially unjust approach. Progress has already been made in this area. More and more financial institutions are issuing green bonds and other instruments that can secure investment that is contingent on climate credentials. Large corporates are being required to disclose their carbon footprints to investors as a result of the work of the Task force for Climate-Related Disclosures (TCFD). The challenge now is to take this further and use similar levers to persuade organisations and businesses to act in a way way that is environmentally resilient and socially responsible.

Ultimately, to make progress in climate resilience, decisions about development and investment projects need to be based on the extent to which they contribute to social outcomes and the wellbeing of people. To do this, requires the support of a greener, fairer, finance system.

This is the third in a series looking at the challenges and opportunities for achieving climate resilience in developing countries. Read about financing resilience and making a lasting difference

John Carstensen, climate change lead, international development

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