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Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Wellbeing is local, so let’s start with those nearest to us

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wellbeing economics - The Catholic weekly
Kristen Baker from the Commonwealth Treasury and Prof Sharon Bessell from ANU with Jenny Stanger and Julie Macken. Photo: Supplied/Archdiocese of Sydney Justice and Peace Office.

Recently the Justice and Peace Office hosted a symposium on the topic of wellbeing economics, that is, economics that prioritises people’s quality of life, rather than just growing GDP.

The state and federal governments have both recently put initiatives in place to broaden our sense of how we are faring.

It was a great event that brought together people’s grassroots testimonials with interested church leaders and some outside guests from government and academia.

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A theme that emerged from the day was that of our tendency to create complicated, self-defeating systems.

A parishioner from Surry Hills parish said she hit two barriers in her attempts to assist residents of the Northcott public housing project.

One was cumbersome rules, particularly when multiple agencies became involved; the other was people “falling through the cracks” and not receiving the necessary care or attention.

She had assisted one person, the victim of a stroke, who was medically unable to work but was still on JobSeeker rather than the disability pension.

Navigating the rules and processes to make her life more liveable was a huge task. It was only because our parishioner took an interest that anyone attended to it.

What does this have to do with wellbeing economics? The organisations who provided those services are—like most of us—stuck in the mentality of growth and efficiency.

When this is followed to its logical conclusion, you end up excluding people altogether. Those of us old enough to remember the TV show Yes Minister may recall the episode about a public hospital that hit all its management targets and was considered exemplary.

That was until someone realised the hospital wasn’t serving any patients. Serving patients wasn’t a benchmark!

Our systems can take over, and we end up serving the system rather than serving people.

How to avoid this? It may not be the solution in every situation, but keeping things local is usually a good instinct.

Back in the early 19th century, modernity began shrinking distances with railways, telegraphs and management systems, expanding the control of central offices in public administration and in business.

In response, the church developed the doctrine of subsidiarity; that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people they affect.

In the case of our Northcott residents, people in faraway government or NGO offices were making decisions, blissfully unaware of how they were affecting (or rather, not affecting) people on the ground.

Most care takes place person-to-person in households, families and parishes. It isn’t included in GDP calculations, thank goodness.

My office was involved in setting up one such initiative earlier this year, Curious Grace, which my colleague Cailey explained in The Catholic Weekly a few months ago.

Like most parish groups, Curious Grace depends on time given by volunteers, a space provided free by the parish, and a small amount of donated materials.

That’s all you need for meaningful person-to-person relationships of care. You don’t need angel investors or foundation grants.

The church also has a long history of supporting cooperatives: enterprises that retain ownership and profits locally.

One of the best-known cooperatives in the world, Spain’s Mondragon, was established by a Catholic priest in 1956.

There is huge potential right now for Catholics to get together and organise cooperative housing projects to tackle Sydney’s ongoing housing crisis. Cooperative-owned housing is quite common in other parts of the world.

Local and cooperative approaches are quite counter cultural today. We are in a culture obsessed with growth. Who would aspire to run something small and local?

Everything pushes us towards establishing something big and showy that receives a lot of money and publicity or, if you can’t establish it yourself, be part of the excitement of someone else’s growing company or social venture.

Of course, it’s not a black and white choice; large organisations are still capable of doing good and small organisations are not always run in an exemplary manner, but we can all be more discerning about whether a particular initiative and program is just pursuing growth for its own sake or is focused on improving the lives of real people.

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