WHO: changing the values ​​of the economy to protect the health of people and the planet

The current economic model resembles the cynical Oscar Wilde, who “he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing“. Indeed, “in our economy, the variety and complexity of values ​​are narrowed a single unit of measurement, the price. What has value demands a higher price; what commands a higher price is considered to be of greater value – this is the shared narrative”.

The above are not the words of activists or young idealists: rather, they are the opening words of an authoritative report authored by the “Council on Economics of Health for All“(Council on Economics of Health for All) from the World Health Organization. The Council was born in November 2020 to study and find solutions to one of the most pressing issues of global concern today: public health. Composed of influential industry experts (the Board is chaired by Mariana Mazzucato, Professor of Economics of Innovation at University College London), the Board publishes a series of documents in which some of the key points on the way to to build real “health for all”.

The third report, published in March 2022, focuses on values ​​that should guide politics and the economy for this purpose. Ensuring “health for all” means achieving a condition in which health and well-being are truly accessible to all members of the global community. For such an objective to be achieved, three values ​​are needed towards which to direct any individual and collective choice:

  • planet health: preserve certain fundamental ecosystem goods and services (clean water and air, stable climate, healthy ecosystems) and do not cross planetary boundaries;
  • Diversity and social inclusion: work to increase social cohesion, reduce the factors that generate inequalities, enhance the elements of diversity;
  • Health and human well-being: ensuring that each person is placed in the best conditions to flourish physically, mentally and emotionally.

The inadequacy of the current system

The first essential step in this paradigm shift must concern the founding values ​​of our economic system. “Confusing price and value and pursue a infinite economic growthmakes it impossible, in fact, to understand what elements are really necessary for “Health for All” to become a reality. Indeed, the currently dominant economic system is affected by a “pathological obsession with GDPConsidered the only measure of progress, which nevertheless contains within itself a inevitable perversion: rewards the growth made possible by the destruction of the environment and the increase in inequalities, completely neglecting what it has really value – which, in other words, would help protect human health and the planet.

Yet it seems that policy makers are largely victims of the GDP crisis. In 2020 alone, the year of the pandemic – denounces the WHO-sponsored Council – world GDP increased by 2.2 trillion dollars “thanks to”increase in military spending, when only a small part of this huge sum of money (about $50 billion) would have been enough to guarantee vaccine coverage against SARS-CoV-2 for the entire world population. These data clearly show how “health for all” is certainly not at the top of most governments’ priority lists“If this were not the case – underline the authors of the report – the governments would not have planned investments 40 times greater than those necessary for health”.

The alternatives exist, and there are those who apply them

Yet this negative trend is not universal. Some countries, in fact, are gradually freeing themselves from “GDP fundamentalism” and are beginning to apply other systems for measuring the well-being and progress of society at the national level. The Finlandfor example, he replaced GDP with PGI (Real progress indicator), which measures progress in terms of sustainability and negatively assesses activities that generate profits at the expense of social or environmental justice. the Bhutansmall Himalayan monarchy between India and Tibet, since 1972 (year of publication of the Report of the Club of Rome The limits of growth and the first UN conference on the human environment) bases its economic estimates on Gross National Happiness Index (GNH)a very varied indicator that assesses the impact of national political choices on the happiness of citizens.

What has been observed in these “pioneer” countries is very instructive. Over time, in fact, the decoupling between GDP and indicators such as the GPI or the GNH is obvious: where one grows, the other inevitably decreases. It is a demonstration on the ground of how the current economic model does not recognize the fair value (and therefore does not privilege) what would be necessary to guarantee progress and collective well-being, beyond monetary indicators and financial.

The difference between these two approaches is basically only one: to recognize the limitation of GDP is to restore the economy to its true nature, which consists in being a means and not the only end.

To move towards a more “human” vision of the economy, we must therefore learn to also give value to goods and activities that cannot be priced in monetary terms. It is also essential to recognize that economic objectives are not the only ones to be achieved, since individuals and communities embrace different values, goals and worldviews, but all equally worthy of consideration and which can contribute, in their diversity, to the achievement of the common goal. goal of “Health for All”.

A single measurement system – say the members of the Council – will not be able to bring together all the components necessary for “Health for All”. But, on closer inspection, inventing new tools is not necessary: we have the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of theAgenda 2030, signed by almost every nation in the world; from there we can start building. And it’s not just good intentions: even then, in fact, there are already those who have paved the way. The example reported by advice is the one from Ghanawhich, like other nations, has for some years been creating expenditure items dedicated to individual SDGs with the aim of increasing collective well-being by working on four axes: economy, environment, society and institutions.

What “development”?

“Health for all” is one of the essential characteristics of a society that wants to guarantee environmental and social justice to all its citizens, as theorized by the “The donut economy“(donut saving), the famous economic model developed by Kate Raworth, professor atEnvironmental Change Institute of Oxford. This model indeed offers a perfect synthesis of the necessary balance between the health of the planet and the living beings that inhabit it, and human health and well-being. Social priorities and environmental needs cannot be considered independent of each other: they are closely linked dimensions, to which we can only devote ourselves in a concerted way. Therefore, if we consider the combination of these two dimensions as the threshold of sustainability, we discover that “no nation, to date, really operates within the planetary limits, managing, at the same time, to satisfy the needs of its citizens. […] In this direction, no nation can be considered developed: every country must therefore embark on an unprecedented path of transformation to guarantee the health of human beings And of the planet “.

The pandemic crisis has irrevocably exposed the fragility of the current development model and highlighted the intimate correlation between environmental protection and human development. Downstream of this crisis, ignorance is no longer an excuse: from now on, the solutions can only be systemic, and will have to take into account the complexity and the plurality of the factors at stake.

The actors who participate in the change will also have to reflect this variety and this complexity. We need an approach that combines the so-called visions whole-of-government And the whole society, the only ones capable of guaranteeing that all available forces (political decision-makers, stakeholders, economic actors, organizations, associations, civil society and ordinary citizens) are adequately involved. The goal to aim for is real systemic change, which should allow, for example, to arrive prepared for the next crisis – whether health or environmental. The preventionthis will therefore be a key element: it will be necessary to guarantee not only health services, but also education, decent living and working conditions, financial independence, access to a healthy environment. These are all challenges that will have to be supported by targeted economic policies, which will be made possible by political decision-makers who share a common premise: to allocate funds and investments not only to what has monetary value, but to what contributes to progress and to the betterment of society.

Like the same authors of this one Guidance note they acknowledge, the objectives set out here are certainly ambitious, but not beyond our reach. Encouraging examples of change are already before our eyes; civil society and, although still timidly, the political and economic world are beginning to take the first steps in this direction. As the pandemic has taught, the drastic change in our way of life can happen even over the course of a single night. We face an equally urgent, equally historic challenge: to make good use of our resources.


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