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Trevor Hancock: Toward a B.C. framework for well-being

Too many governments seem to think that the business of government is business. This comes from the erroneous belief that the central purpose of government and society is economic development.

Too many governments seem to think that the business of government is business. This comes from the erroneous belief that the central purpose of government and society is economic development.

And it leads to the equally erroneous belief that the corporate sector is government’s primary partner. Of course, if they are the principal funders of your party, that might explain why you think that way — and that might lead you to go easy on them.

But there is a better approach, in which the central purpose of government is human development rather than economic development. In that case, organizations of people — as communities, as NGOs, as unions, as faith communities and so on — are the most important partners. Corporations are partners only to the extent that they are contributing to human development.

But to the extent that their activities damage human health or social well-being — be it here in B.C. or elsewhere in the world — corporations are not fit to be partners of a government committed to human development. On the contrary, they would be subject to regulation and taxation intended to prevent the harm that they might otherwise cause.

Moreover, if our purpose is human development, a simplistic focus on job creation — any kind of jobs — is wrong-headed. We need jobs that contribute to the overall goal.

There are lots of jobs in selling tobacco, or in making and selling junk food or in polluting industries — and many more jobs in treating the health consequences of these bad practices. These all add to the gross domestic product, which only shows what a truly idiotic measuring stick it is. But that is not a healthy way to do business or run a province or a country.

There is another aspect to the approach I advocate here that is worth noting, and that is how we consider human services. In a business-focused world, education, health care and social services are too often seen as expenses that must be reduced. But in a human-centred approach, these are investments we should welcome.

In addition, we should recognize that the assistance and support that families provide for each other and that communities offer each other as volunteers are an important contribution to social well-being — a contribution that conventional economic accounting, such as the GDP, completely misses.

Which brings me to the B.C. Framework for Well-being that B.C.’s Board Voice is proposing. Board Voice is a non-profit organization that was established in 2010 to bring together and represent the volunteer boards of B.C.’s social services sector. The organization’s vision is of “strong, vibrant communities and a high-quality community social-benefit sector.”

Yet it points out that while B.C. spends billions of dollars annually on social interventions and supports, “we spend it with no clear idea as to what we’re trying to achieve, or how we’ll know when we get there.”

Some of the problems it identifies include government ministries providing services and funding in vertical envelopes with little or no co-ordination; ad hoc and short-lived initiatives with few measured outcomes; and very little capacity at the local level to support community social planning. As a result, it states, “decisions related to community services are very often made by individual ministries and/or health authorities based on short-term fiscal plans, without significant input or consultation from and across communities.”

In short, we lack a comprehensive human-development strategy, so there is nothing to match the economic development strategies that governments spend so much time and energy on. So Board Voice is proposing the development of a social policy framework through a new project it is launching — There is a Better Way: A B.C. Framework for Well-being.

Board Voice is undertaking consultations in 15 communities around B.C. to learn how such a framework could benefit people and their communities, as well as consultations with key provincial organizations. Let us hope the next B.C. government, whoever it is, will pay more attention to this issue, and will pay heed to the advice that will come from this process.

We would all be better off if governments spent more time focused on human development and social well-being, and not simply pursuing the false god of GDP.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.