Complexity in wellbeing and the 'leave no-one behind' agenda: Studies in Aotearoa New Zealand
International development’s preoccupation with growth-oriented strategies has abated in response to the inadequacies of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of societal progress. The broader framing of a wellbeing agenda promises a departure from the policymaking status quo, yet its measures have not kept pace. Efforts to operationalise wellbeing have relied on familiar statistical tools and linear models that limit the information considered relevant for human flourishing. The resulting loss of complexity and diversity distorts policy messages and systematically perpetuates the structural conditions that generate wellbeing inequities. In New Zealand, the re-emergence of wellbeing as a political focal point, coupled with a commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) call to ‘leave no-one behind’, places pressure on wellbeing frameworks to improve outcomes for people experiencing hardship. This research explores wellbeing from the perspective of those experiencing hardship in Cannons Creek, Porirua, and analyses how holistic approaches to wellbeing might enable more targeted policies that address wellbeing inequities. Critical theory guided this research and was complemented by the methodologies of participatory action research and the capability approach. Participatory mixed methods enabled an exploration of participants’ perspectives via focus group discussions, diagramming activities, and free-list surveys. The results revealed a disconnect between New Zealand’s macro level wellbeing framework and community level realities, primarily in what was measured and why it was considered relevant for wellbeing. Participants conceptualised wellbeing as a balance of domains in a non-hierarchical system, and an analysis of wellbeing inter-relationships indicated that some domains acted as catalysts of change or as bridges between seemingly unrelated wellbeing processes. The conclusion can be drawn that for the operationalisation of wellbeing to reach fuller potential, policymakers should make use of alternative framings that shift emphasis from static linear thresholds to a continuum of dynamic, inter-related processes embedded in time, place, and context. As New Zealand’s transition to a wellbeing agenda marks new opportunities to pioneer discussions on how best to ‘leave no-one behind’, this research makes a strong case for measures of progress to reflect the intrinsic and inescapably complex nature of wellbeing as it is experienced in people’s daily lives.