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Can Public Administration Utilize New Paradigms to Achieve Human Wellbeing?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Marco Castillo
March 7, 2019

Despite its contested nature, the study of public administration has long revolved around a core set of assumptions regarding human nature, human society and the nature and purpose of the state. And while public administration has broadened its scope and grown more complex, its development continues to stem from an intellectual tradition that has largely overlooked non-Western paradigms and ways of knowing. These paradigms, some rooted in the belief systems of historically marginalized indigenous societies, can aid in the development and understanding of public administration as it seeks to meet the governance challenges of the 21st century.

One such paradigm is sumak kawsay, a concept from the indigenous Quecha people of Ecuador in South America. Sumak kawsay is a concept that seeks to define “the good life” for human beings; as such, it emphasizes the importance of sustainable access to the necessities of life, the formation and sustainment of thriving and connected communities, and harmonious human interaction with nature. Sumak kawsay emphasizes these values as foundational for attaining human happiness and self-actualization. This and similar indigenous concepts such as suma qamaña in Bolivia have had a profound impact on the politics and policy of South America, prompting reforms that have benefitted the citizenry of these nations. Moreover, these concepts have offered these nations alternatives to the economically-focused neoliberal understanding of human wellbeing. This may be of value to other nations as they seek new ways to achieve improvements in the human condition.

The Western world’s focus on economic factors as core indicators and drivers of human wellbeing can be seen as a curious development given mounting evidence to the contrary. The economics-based perspective on improving human wellbeing emerged in the post-World War II era as the United States and other Western-world nations engaged in a global effort to improve the economic conditions of people living in the non-Western world. Efforts toward improving the human condition emphasized economic development. They also prioritized promoting industrialization and improvements in a nation’s traditional indicators of economic progress such as per-capita income and gross national product. Global financial and economic development institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank emerged during this time period and promoted this economic model with the understanding that such macrolevel economic development would inevitably lead to improvements in the human condition. But as we now know from the mounting social science research, such claims are partial and overlook a host of factors that are increasingly being seen and supported as central to authentic human wellbeing.

In response to this perspective, scholars in economics, the social sciences and policy practitioners have developed new schools of thought that counter this economically-focused narrative. Perhaps most notably, the field of wellbeing economics has emerged, challenging the orthodox economic schools of thought positing traditional economic factors and measures as the primary drivers of human wellbeing and thriving. The field of wellbeing economics has been vital in the development of new metrics that can measure these other important dimensions of human wellbeing. For instance, the human development index (HDI) was developed in 1990 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to include measures of education and life expectancy along with more traditional measures of economic progress to form a broader and fuller picture of human wellbeing within a society. The objective of these new metrics is to focus development efforts on issues beyond macroeconomics and more on issues directly related to everyday human wellbeing such as health, education and factors related to building human community, such as political freedom.

Governments, NGOs and public organizations now have the opportunity to avail themselves of a wealth of alternative paradigms and perspectives on the elements of human well-being as they seek to achieve their missions. The traditional economic measures of human wellbeing have been supplemented with new indexes and measures built on broader considerations of the essential elements of human wellbeing. They drive human development organizations and their policy and administrative efforts in new directions. This finer consideration of human wellbeing, the metrics by which it should be measured, and the programs and policies by which governments can best effect it can free governments and public administrators from some environmental turbulence. This turbulence stems from the political vicissitudes associated with shifting economic paradigms that drove much of politics in the 20th century. This freeing effect can aid governments and public organizations as they seek to enact programs and policies that take leveraged action to improve human wellbeing while surviving across political administrations.


Author:Marco Castillo is an associate professor of political science at the New York City College of Technology of CUNY. His research focuses on public participation in the administration of government, social equity in the provision of public services, international public administration, and the politics of homeland security. He previously worked as a legislative policy analyst for the New York City Council and served as the chair of the NYCCT College Council. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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