What is prosperity?

What is prosperity?

agendaNi considers how a ‘good life’ can be measured as Northern Ireland prepares for cuts and faces a hard recovery from recession.

We certainly live in less prosperous times than before. The long growth in jobs, spending and general wealth came to an abrupt halt as the credit crunch hit. Northern Ireland, like the rest of the world, rediscovered that economics works in cycles.

In its wake, academics have increasingly questioned the orthodox model of non- stop growth and also the way in which it is measured. The main thrust of this thinking has been to work out what factors will clearly make life better for people and society as a whole.

agendaNi asked two commentators for their thoughts as part of this article (see opposite). It’s also worth noting that this is not a new debate but one which attracts more attention in hard times.

Religions have long claimed that there is something ‘beyond’ material possessions.

Bobby Kennedy saw pros and cons in gross national product as it became part of the political discourse during the 1960s. As a positive, the measure alerted society to “the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl”.

Yet, it had its limits, by not allowing for the quality of a child’s education, the beauty of a country’s poetry or the strength of its marriages, the intelligence of its public debate or the integrity of its public officials: “It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”


The Human Development Index, launched by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq in 1990, aims to take a broader view. Life expectancy at birth, average and expected years of schooling, and gross national income per capita are combined to give a figure for each assessed country.

Since 2007, the Legatum Institute has developed a Prosperity Index, which is based on 79 variables. The institute, funded by a Dubai-based hedge fund, describes prosperity in fairly commercial terms, saying it is found in “entrepreneurial democracies that have strong social fabrics.” However, choice and opportunity mattered more to happiness than “making a lot of money quickly.”

Prosperity without growth is possible, according to a Sustainable Development Commission report of that name, published in March 2009.

Author Tim Jackson wrote: “It’s perverse to talk about things going well where there is inadequate food and shelter (as is the case for billions in the developing world). But it is also plain to see that the simple equation of quantity with quality, of more with better, is false in general.”

In his view, “to do well” also included the ability to give and receive love, enjoy the respect of one’s peers, contribute useful work, and have a sense of belonging and trust in the community. Jackson was intrigued by the idea that “humans can flourish and at the same time consume less” and this offered the “best prospect” for lasting prosperity.

Much of this thinking is bound up in the Green New Deal but the commission’s head, Will Day, thinks that some mixed messages are being put out.

“When a politician or a business leader says they’re looking for sustainable growth, what they mean is they want growth to go on forever, unchecked and ideally double-digit growth,” he told agendaNi last September. He conceded that this was understandable at a time of high unemployment.

Happiness index

David Cameron has asked the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) to devise a new way of measuring well-being, to be used from April this year. Economic growth was the “essential foundation of all our aspirations” but he noted that levels of contentment “have remained static or even fallen” despite growth.

The PM admitted that there was a suspicion that “all this is a bit airy-fairy and a bit impractical” but he claimed a new measure would “open up a national debate about what really matters” and help government work out the best ways of trying to help to improve people’s well- being. Developing the ‘happiness index’ will cost £2 million.

It is not clear what the end result will be, but the office hopes to measure well- being at a sub-national level. The contentment of Northern Ireland residents could be compared against some of their neighbours.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency does not have formal quality of life measures but “collects information on many indicators which could contribute to a measure of quality of life,” a spokesman said. It is also taking part in the ONS’ debate: the National Well-being Project.

An online consultation ( is now taking place. Factors which have been already identified include job satisfaction, having good connections with friends and relatives, caring, volunteering and the ability to have a say on local and national issues.

An economy for society

The economy should serve society, not the other way around, which is the prevailing wisdom.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’ comprehensively demonstrates that inequality is not just bad for the poor; it drags all of society down. However, “more equal societies almost always do better” in fields such as health, educational attainment, teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, murder, imprisonment, obesity, mental illness and life satisfaction.

Societies which make employment an economic priority are more stable and cohesive. The most prosperous era in western Europe and America was the three decades after World War Two, known as the ‘great compression’ as the gap in salaries and wealth reduced and social mobility was a fact, not a mere aspiration. Give the young the hope and the chance of becoming more prosperous than their parents, and the pursuit of happiness will be more than a pipe dream for the 40 per cent of our unemployed who are under 25.

Peter Bunting is Assistant General Secretary with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Northern Ireland Committee

Collective contributions

Prosperity has traditionally been equated with financial well-being. However, the Government in Westminster and other governments have begun to explore the idea of a happiness index suggesting prosperity may extend beyond financial wealth.

Almost everyone will agree a certain level of financial resources is necessary to provide peace of mind including the reassurance to pay bills, meet unexpected needs, provide generally accepted material and social comforts and allow participation in public life.

Prosperity could begin to examine how we all contribute to society through civic activity, looking after family, relationships with friends, volunteering and other collective contributions to a better world. Translating a sense of ease based on the well-being of society as a whole, particularly assisting the less fortunate would be an innovative prism for policy-making. It would certainly be an interesting way to consider how to handle the treatment of bonuses of senior banking executives.

Les Allamby is Director of Law Centre (NI)

Show More
Back to top button