Measuring the concept of “Well-Being”. A first approach for Bolivia

Poverty - Inequality - Aid Effectiveness

During the Bolivian president Evo Morales’ administration, the Ministry of Development and Planning (2015) had developed a National Social and Economic Development Plan [NDP] focusing on human development and Well-Being. The NDP was officially launched in 2015, and its main strategic guidelines are aimed at the transformation of Bolivia to the ‘well-being’ concept involving criteria such as life satisfaction and/or quality of life in a broad sense. Although the concept of the former became a strategic part of the public policy agenda of the Bolivian government in the first period of Morales’ governance no attempts were made to measure it.

There is substantial evidence about measuring well-being in the literature and many of the studies focus on criteria for subjective and objective methods. Subjective well-being is commonly discussed in terms of happiness, quality of life, and life satisfaction, although these constructs vary somewhat in definition (Seligson et al., 2005). Subjective measures of well-being mention that personal relations are the most important contributor to well-being, followed by work, leisure activities and interpersonal interactions, in that order (Nieboer et al., 2005). The subjective criteria are usually displayed as qualitative information, while objective criteria are exposed as quantitative information, including measuring GDP, GDP per capita, (Torras, 2008) and social indicators (e.g., net enrollment rate for primary education, child mortality, expectancy of life, poverty rates and others) (United Nations Development Program - UNDP, 2013; Berenger and Verdier-Couchane, 2007; Alkire, 2011).

This study intends to bring an approximation of measurement to the concept of “development and progress”, translated – and under the assumption that well-being concept is an appropriate approach to the former – into the NDP of Bolivia, using information gathered before (2000-2005) and during Morales’ first period of governance (2006-2010). The analysis includes the construction of a multidimensional index that calculates ‘distances’ (Distance P2), considering the worst values of a set of indicators taken as reference, among municipalities (unit of analysis), and aggregates across time (from 2000 to 2011) and dimensions (material, social and human).

The analysis includes the comparison among municipalities and changes over time of them based on their well-being values. In general the municipalities with lowest values of well-being are concentrated in the Department of Oruro. In addition, if temporal analysis is included these municipalities remain with the lowest positions. Overall, the Bolivians well-being decrease at subnational levels over time from 2000 to 2011.

Theoretical Framework: Domains

There is no a formal agreement about which domains, even less indicators, should be incorporated when analyzing well-being. For instance, for the Human Development Index (HDI), UNDP (2013) uses three dimensions: Health, Education, and Living Standards. The same applies with the Multidimensional Poverty Index by Alkire (2011). Stiglitz et al., (2009) suggest the following: material living standards (income, consumption and wealth); health; education; personal activities including work; political voice and governance; social connections and relationships; environment (present and future conditions); and insecurity. Somarriba and Pena (2009) when measuring quality of life in Europe use education, health, safety, satisfaction and happiness. Epley (2008), when proposing a method of measuring quality of life at the local and state level uses as domains: crime, health, employment, education and recreation. Heshmati (2008), when measuring child well-being uses: material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risk, and subjective well-being. Ocampo and Foronda (2007), when measuring quality of life in Bolivia use household characteristics (infrastructure, access to basic services) and their surrounding (crime and security, health, environment, education infrastructure). Murias et al. (2006) when constructing a well-being index for Spanish provinces use: Consumption capacity, wealth stocks, inequality and economic insecurity. White (2009) proposes for well-being measurement three dimensions, namely: the material (assets, welfare and standards of living); social (social relations, access to public goods, attitudes to life and personal relationships); and human (people’s perception of their {material, social and human} positions, cultural values, ideologies and beliefs). The latter approach is used for this study.

According to White (2009) the three dimensions (material, social and human) are associated among them and none can exist without the others. Thus, it is important not to forget their unity when analyzing and measuring well-being. Another way to think of this is that for any element within people’s well-being there are potentially three aspects to be considered: what people have or do not have (material); what people do or cannot do with it (social); what people think or feel (human). She also argues for a subjective element for each of the dimensions; however, given the lack of data for the subjective variables there are not considered here.

Some considerations are important to bear in mind. First, when selecting the indicators for the social dimension the main criterion was to have a common infrastructure or place where people can interact between each other. In addition, for the material dimension the number of personnel in health centres, hospitals, schools, colleges and institutes is used as the availability of services in the municipalities. Second, the classification of the indicators is indicative, in the sense that another one may apply; however, given the lack of information at municipal level in Bolivia these dimensions and indicators are used for the analysis. Moreover, the indicators aggregated according to the dimensions do not affect the validity of the results and the estimation of the well-being. In other words, the focus and relevance is centered in the set of indicators beyond the classification per se. Similar approach is applied in Pena (1977), Somarriba (2008), Somarriba and Pena (2009), Zarzosa and Somarriba (2013).


The database contains variables at subnational level (327 municipalities) from 1992 to 2011 [1] classified by the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) elaborated by UDAPE of the Bolivian Ministry of Planning. UDAPE uses this information in order to track the progress of MDG in Bolivia. In addition, there are few variables used in the analysis estimated by UNICEF Bolivia.

From evidence to policy design

The results of this study will provide inputs for public policy guidelines in order to identify which dimensions (e.g. material, social, human) and/or sectors (e.g. health, education) need more attention, in terms of improving well-being since currently there is no evidence about the Bolivians well-being. Given the fact that subnational information in Bolivia is really scarce, the results will provide evidence and allow the government and decision makers to consider well-being issues from an objective and quantitative point of view, focusing on low well-being areas (cities and municipalities).

Currently, UNICEF in Bolivia is using this evidence – as complementary – to design their new strategic approach for 2018 – 2022. Even though there is no sufficient evidence about measuring well-being is very important to consider these measurements in the immediate future since global measurements such as Sustainable Development Goals include multidimensional approaches (e.g. children living in multidimensional poverty) but also on well-being (e.g. Percentage of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being). In addition, in Bolivia there is a clear path to follow in the sense that human development and well-being gained high relevance in the NDP in a long run framework to 2025.

Discussion and next steps

Currently there are processes of designing sectorial and sub national development plans which must be aligned to the guidelines of NDP. There are challenges in these important processes for Bolivia. First, there is no data for topics that are important for human development and well-being. For instance, there is no data about violence in schools or households, early childhood development, well-being per se, child labor, efficacy and efficiency in the use of social investment, formal measurements for multidimensional poverty, among others. Second, the disaggregation is not sufficient. Data by income quintile, place of living, level of schooling, sex are scarce. The latter gets even worse at sub national levels. Third, associated to the latter the quality of data is an issue that the Government should emphasize. Fourth, there are no sufficient data that allows to carry out longitudinal analysis limiting to shed light on possible benefits such as investing in early childhood development. Fifth, even though there is a national law allowing to generate data at subnational levels the installed capacity and the skills and knowledge are very limited.

Whether the Government of Bolivia consider the points mentioned before and starts designing formal mechanisms to control, supervise, monitor and evaluate its NDP at all levels may be a good start to be accountable for the expected results at 2025.

1. This range of time is not the same for each variable in the database as detailed in Table 1.


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