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What charter for humanity? Defining the destination of ‘development’ (4/5)

How can we translate God’s command to ‘love one another as ourselves’ in a language that can be understood in multi-faith societies? This is the fourth instalment of Michael Schluter’s Cambridge Paper in which he develops the concept of ‘Relational well-being’.

Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre. (September 2006)

Relational well-being in multi-faith societies

The next question is this: how can Christians advance their vision of social purpose in secular, theocratic or multi-faith societies, where they are a small minority? First, Christians need to rediscover the sense of community enjoyed by the early church, and live out God’s priorities for their life together in both ‘political’ and financial terms. We need to put our own house in order. Secondly, the challenge is to find categories and vocabulary which resonate with the wider public, of whatever religious or agnostic persuasion, and yet reflect the values and truth of a Christian worldview. Christians should not, and generally cannot, impose their views; they need to encourage debate and argue their case.

Our approach is to define the goals of society in relational terms. One way to do this is to focus on the theme of ‘relational proximity’. It relies on a shared human appreciation that quality of relationships – issues such as identity, security, self-esteem and interdependence – are key to personal well-being and happiness, and also the key to organisational and business effectiveness. Institutions such as schools and universities, hospitals, companies and financial institutions need to re-articulate their objectives in relational terms. We should also re-examine areas of personal lifestyle from a relational perspective, including how we drive our cars, the impact of television, video games and the Internet in our homes, and our approach to work, recreation and family life. A challenge indeed!

Before considering how to measure RWB, one objection must be answered. In shifting the focus away from growth of income, is there not a betrayal of the very poorest who lack even enough to eat? Surely relationships for them, at best, are of secondary importance: what matters is simply water, food and shelter. The empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Two studies of life satisfaction of slum dwellers in Calcutta found inter aliathat ‘the respondents report satisfactory social lives, rewarding family lives and a belief that they lead moral lives… While [they] do not lead enviable lives, they lead meaningful lives.’[1]Correspondingly, in a subsequent study in Bangladesh, relationships used by poor people to secure their livelihood were found to be hierarchical, exploitative and sometimes violent.[2]The pleasure of good relationships and the pain of unjust relationships matter to the destitute.

Rather than seeing food security for the poorest as the goal of social change, which would reduce all human purpose to no more than filling the belly, it should be seen as an essential precondition, alongside the ending of armed conflict. In terms of external intervention and domestic policy priorities, the first step towards achieving RWB has to be the ending of absolute poverty and armed conflict. However, to tackle these great evils it is not enough to deal only with the symptoms; their causes must be addressed as well, which brings us back to the broader goals of society.

Measuring relational well-being (RWB)

Realistic measures or indicators are needed if relational goals are to be translated into decisions governing policy priorities, project selection and resource allocation. In some respects, the processof selecting indicators is little different from what is currently used in the Human Development Report (HDR). For example, in the HDR, the percentage of children in primary school is used as a measure of the child’s well-being. But for a relational assessment, the education level of the parents would also be needed, to evaluate the likely impact of the child’s education on those relationships.

It is not possible to measure a relationship directly so as to allow interpersonal and international comparisons. However, there are two approaches to approximation: ask people to make a subjective analysis of a relationship (‘On average, how does a white British person feel towards a British Asian in your neighbourhood/workplace?’), or seek a proxy measurement, such as the numbers of racially-inspired incidents of violence in British cities. Neither is totally satisfactory, but both allow inter-temporal comparisons (notwithstanding the risks of changes in the way people describe their perceptions over time, or in the way incidents of violence are recorded by the police).

Inability to measure relationships except by perceptions of individuals or by proxy indicators should not discourage use of the RWB approach. There are also problems inherent in aggregated income analysis. Production of cigarettes, bombs and poison gas all contribute to growth in GDP. If two friends pay each other to look after each other’s children, there is growth in GDP – although there is no increase in care provided, and perhaps a loss in its quality.

Any measure of RWB involves assumptions as to what constitutes good or right relationships. As discussed above, in the biblical account right relationships are characterised by justice, mercy, faithfulness, forgiveness, truth, generosity, compassion, respect, hope, patience and love. Below is a list of key relationships and examples of possible indicators:

Relationship issueIndicator
Intra-family   trust/commitmentMarriage rate, divorce rate, birth rate, levels of household debt.
Social isolation of older peopleNumber of contacts per week, percentage who feel lonely.
Workplace   relationshipsExtent of absenteeism and pay differentials within organisations.
Gender relationsIncidence of domestic violence/rape/prostitution, hits on pornographic websites, gender ratio at different educational levels.
Intra-community relationsCrime levels, proportion knowing names of neighbours, incidents of vandalism, percentage drug addiction, suicide rate.
Inter-racial/ethnic relationsIncidents of racial/ethnic violence, comparative income/education levels.
International relationsAid (including private charity) as proportion of GDP, levels of carbon emissions, flow and treatment of migrants, cost of a visa.

In addition, gross inequalities in income, assets, education or access to healthcare can be measured; they are symptomatic of an injustice that makes it difficult to achieve social harmony. These different indicators cannot be aggregated into a single index by which to rank countries. Some countries excel in one area, others in another. It is unlikely that any country or region will be able to claim they are ‘ahead’ on all indicators.

Michael Schluter

Dr Michael Schluter holds a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University (USA). He is the founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationship Foundation. He also worked as an applied economist for the World Bank.

With special thanks to the Jubilee Centre.

[1]Quoted in L. Camfield, K. Choudbury and J. Devine, ‘Relationships, Happiness and Well-Being: Insights from Bangladesh’, WeD, ESRC Research Group, Working Paper No. 14, University of Bath, March 2006, p.3.

[2]Ibid, p.23.

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