Last week was a whirlwind. I spent the first part of the week in Guadalajara, Mexico at the invitation of the OECD (organization for economic cooperation and development) to their 5th world forum on statistics, knowledge and policy: transforming policy changing lives. The second half of the week was spent in Phoenix, Arizona at the International Society for Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS) at the invitation of the president of that society - more on that in another post.
I want to tell you about the OECD meeting. There were over 1,200 people there. Most of them were high level policy makers, with a few academics sprinkled in. Pretty much all of them in suits. I brought a colleague with me who is using the Gross National Happiness Index in her small community. I think we were the only grassroots activists. I'm not quite sure why they invited me...nevertheless, they did.
There were three talks I really wanted to attend featuring John Helliwell, Richard Layard, Gus O'Donnell and Jeffrey Sachs. Helliwell and Layard spoke on happiness and sustainability. I met Helliwell in 2012 at the UN high level meeting and have had several conversations with him since then. He is a great guy. I really wanted to hear what he and Layard had to say, but the gods were against me. The meeting had been moved and while there was an abundance of beautiful tall women all dressed in black to tell one where to go, none of them could tell one the correct place to go. After checking the two plenary rooms, room one, two and three, I found the meeting in room four. Helliwell and Layard did re-cap their talk in the Q&A session: happiness and sustainability are inextricably linked and the SDGs (meaning the United Nation's sustainable DevelopmentGoals) should be include happiness metrics. Well, the World Happiness Report reflects this. I wished I could have heard the whole discussion (and maybe they will post the recording), but I did get to have a cocktail and snacks with Helliwell that night before we were treated to a spectacular show that night.
Gus O'Donnell spoke on one of those panel so full it boggles the mind. If you have not read his work Wellbeing and Policy, you are in for a treat. I loved what he said. He asked policy makers to ask "What are we doing wrong? What are we not measuring that we should? Where are we failing?" I wish he had been given the entire time to go into why it is so important to look at our failings, explore our challenges in a real way, and be transparent about our mistakes. I suspect most of those listening were not invigorated the way I was. I suspect that for most policy makers, the idea of publicly exploring, much less admitting, mistakes is anathema. But I liked what he said.
Jeffrey Sachs gave a keynote that sounded more like a lecture to students. He started by telling us that he tells all his students: that most important decision they can make is who their parents are. I considered his words in the midst of the audience, and figured most of them had probably made a wise decision if the measure to determine whether it was a good choice is wealth and privilege. It was kind of a hard pill to swallow, since most of the other talks had been by the same policy makers who were in the audience and they had spent their time talking in platitudes about the importance of eradicating poverty. Just a few miles away from the conference center, there were children selling goods on the street. I got a bit agitated and asked few questions at the end, which he did not really answer.
I left Guadalajara feeling a bit sad about the state of high level policy in the happiness movement. I've been working with lots of grassroots activists doing the work in their community that they are talking about. Helliwell did state the importance of bottom up (grassroots) efforts in conjunction with top-down and academic efforts (told you he is a great guy). I wish there were a way to pool grassroots activists and high level policy makers and earnestly explore why this work is not reaching these high level policy makers - one of the failure Gus O'Donnell spoke of.