It was a unique classroom setting, sitting upon a log at the seaside. In the distance the mountain peaks were blue shadows and the ocean was this day like glass; gentle and caressing her shores with the hand of a guiding mother.
The topic between this day’s teacher and I was the relationship between gross domestic product (GDP) and the well-being of a nation. Well-being is a term reflecting the human rights of all the citizens. This includes food and water security, literacy, health, education, shelter, safety, peace, democracy, social connection and belonging, and most importantly, the ability of the citizen to make decisions that have a positive impact on his or her life. It is termed GDH or gross domestic happiness.
In Canada, the growth in GDP over the last five years had been 7.8 per cent with agriculture a stellar performer at a growth of 11 per cent. One could assume an increase in GDP equates to a better life for citizens and farmers or that economic growth of any nature is enjoyed by all persons in a country.
The reality is that there is no economic or research evidence that relates an increase in a developed or developing country’s GDP and the well-being of her citizens. There are moderate gains to the well-being of people in those least developed countries but this quickly tapers off.
Consider Canada, one of the top five trading nations on the globe, which has an illiteracy rate of 22 per cent with food insecurity at 11.1 per cent and one of the highest infant mortalities rates in the developed world along with a failing grade at gender equality. 200,000 persons are homeless. Has the increase in economic activity, measured by GDP, increased the well-being or GDH of our citizens?
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The question from my classroom by the sea pulled at my heart. Have we been running hard and working long only to age and not to change? And in our quest for prosperity as a nation, are we measuring the wrong things? If literacy, health and gender equality are foundational to secure food systems, which is my belief, then how well are we as a nation?
My teacher for this day commented that he supposed it came back to how you measured prosperity. There are those in the world with very little and by our standards are happy and well. And there are those who have much who are unhappy and sick in body and soul. Furthermore, who are we to judge what another human considers prosperity?
Cuba, for example, has well-being handled in the physical sense as there is less than one per cent illiteracy, gender equity is not an issue as everyone is paid the same, and food security is focused, particularly on maternal health. In reality Cuba has slowly over time delivered physical services but there remains a lack of freedoms and of choice.
Costa Rica, poor as we may see it by our standards, is considered the world’s happiest and greenest country because of the focus on education and environment. With an average per capita income of US$15,750 there are roadblocks to complete freedom of decision, but you may leave should you wish to and there is opportunity. It is one of the few countries in the world with a regenerative environmental model.
GDH has to be inclusive of economic, environmental and social needs of the citizen. It is outcome based or in other words we can measure our success by our happiness, not our income. Certainly, globalization has brought about great market and import access, frenzied consumerism and a sightline to all things possible. To say you don’t want this as a Canadian is to say that you reject what is on your plate, the clothes you wear, the car you drive and the technical platforms you use. It has not, however, secured us against the vulnerability of global pricing and has kept us victim to elements completely out of our jurisdiction. For farm families, food insecurity, lack of affordability of education, poor health from stress, isolation and moving away from acceptable societal norms can be one extended commodity price collapse away.
Think about this. What will it take to change what we are chasing to turn inward to build in these securities and the consequential well-being within our homes and communities. How do we do this?
After a moment of silence my thoughtful teacher offered that “it would take a different kind of man to change our world today.” It would take a person who does not see ensuring food security, shelter, education, equality and health services for every Canadian, especially the marginalized, as a charity — but as an act of justice — as a human right.
Putting people in the centre of change, on a family, community, country and global scale may be the only way to true prosperity. The goal of human development must take the shape of feeding, clothing, sheltering and keeping well and safe every person in a sound and regenerative environmental way. Anything less has the potential to expand marginalized groups.
My teacher for this day gave me a new lens through which to look at our world. His vast experience living across our nation made him a valuable resource. His thoughtful and measured responses took me to a higher plane of thought.
As the sun set on the sand and the blues turned to oranges and yellows, I watched my teacher proudly walk away. I wondered where he would go — for he was homeless: Homeless, alone and marginalized in a society of measurable economic wealth.