Book Review: Still Counting – Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy-making, by Marilyn Waring

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_still_countingNew Zealand’s Labour Government will continue to measure economic growth. The government is now also committed to improving inter-generational wellbeing. This will require different ways to measure ‘success’ beyond the Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the official measure of economic growth).

Waring is a feminist economist, former National MP and current Professor of Public Policy at AUT. Still Counting, she says, includes ‘a lifetime of thinking about wellbeing, women’s work and policy-making’.

Waring describes her despair and frustration that high-level policy discussions still focus on ‘capitals, resources, assets and incomes’. Wellbeing has – until now – frequently been overlooked. Measurements of a nation’s economy have traditionally excluded all unpaid work, much of which is carried out by women. Here’s a short (2 ½ minute) video Radio NZ recently produced that explains why this exclusion is unfair: Why ‘women’s work’ doesn’t count. If the video – which includes references to Waring’s work – piques your interest then Still Counting will fill in the gaps and challenge you to consider what could underpin a wellbeing approach to public policy.

Waring observes that ‘reality is far more complex than tidy models’. She presents many examples to back up her assertion. She is critical of at least one New Zealand framework that purports to provide a robust evidence base and outlines her reasons why – including that key data are deliberately left out.

This is a short, punchy book. Waring’s own voice comes through strongly and she shares both personal and professional experiences. It made me think about how and where I spend my time – particularly the amount of unpaid service work most of us now carry out.  Like her, many of us are now our own ‘banker, checkout operator, petrol pump attendant and travel agent’, consuming our own services. Her perspectives on Uber, Airbnb and Wikipedia made me reconsider the impact of their operating models on our lives and communities.

Waring is critical of the accuracy of current GDP measurement data, given the ‘revenue-shifting habits’ (e.g. tax havens) practised by multinationals. She observes that the blurring of ‘work’ and ‘home’ life also weakens the data, as it is possible for both paid work and domestic activities to be undertaken in the same place and often at the same time.

Waring criticises not only data-gathering methods but also terms that she considers to have been misappropriated and misunderstood within the ‘wondrous world of economics’. For example, she dislikes the term ‘capital’ being applied to non-economic or non-financial constructs such as social relationships.

Waring is frank about which – and whose – arguments she considers ‘rubbish’ and ‘nonsense’. She draws upon a Monty Python quote to express her frustration with the OECD’s reliance on ‘monocultural, Western and very Eurocentric characteristics of wellbeing’. She’s particularly scathing about the report of the Global Happiness Council – and what she calls (tongue in cheek) its ‘startling insights’, for reasons she explains.

Waring expresses exasperation that Te Kupenga (a statistical framework developed by Māori to capture data on Māori social, cultural, and economic wellbeing) is not better known and more widely used. She sees great value in Te Kupenga’s focus on quality of life and its ability to gather data at a collective rather than solely individual level.

Waring urges different questions to be asked, ‘not just those dictated by consistency and comparability’ – particularly to capture data on women’s lived experience. She notes that a ‘wider spread of experts [beyond a limited pool of economists] would be better able to compile the sufficiently large variety of data sets needed to make judgements on behalf of current and future generations’. She praises Canadian and Australian approaches to gathering information about wellbeing: their measures ask people what contributes to their wellbeing, rather than relying on pre-determined indicators. Pause quietly, she suggests to us, to respond to a question Bhutan has asked its people: ‘…what are the most important things (sources) that will make you lead a truly happy life?’ This question lingers in my mind.

In the closing chapter, Waring outlines priorities for action. These include environmental issues, embedding Te Kupenga principles in wellbeing decision-making, and undertaking rigorous and regular time-use surveys. Again she urges significant changes to the ways in which data are prioritised, collected and reported, so that ‘inadequate proxies and abstractions’ are avoided.

This book will be of interest to readers familiar with the language of indicators, data sets, frameworks and variables. And if you’re not, there’s a list of key acronyms in the appendix, together with a bibliography and detailed endnotes for each chapter.

It’s a thought-provoking read, challenging us to examine what New Zealanders (and especially government policy-makers) value, as well as to reconsider the most appropriate sources of evidence to inform policy-making. It’s an excellent introduction to not only the wellbeing and policy landscape but also to Waring’s writing. It has encouraged me to seek out more of her books, articles and podcasts.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Still Counting: Wellbeing, Women’s Work and Policy-making
by Marilyn Waring
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9781988545530