A thirst for more than money

The importance of enacting human values seems to have slipped off our public policy agenda, except where it can be shown to provide an economic benefit, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News, 9 May 2019.

A thirst for more than money, Pro Bono News, 9 May

“In a neoliberal world where the market is the dominant mechanism for distributing scarce resources, those assets that cannot be priced and traded are either undervalued or overlooked.” 

– Professor John Henneberry, University of Sheffield, The Conversation 04 December 2018

In the last three days I have conducted more than 30 media interviews following the release of the Australia We Want second report. Most of these interviews focused on the report findings, but I also found myself discussing a range of values like kindness, respect, care, justice, well-being. It was a little surprising that in so many of these interviews, people wanted to talk about the quality of their own relationships, the values being enacted within their families, workplaces and communities.

These interviews seemed to sit in stark contrast to the current election campaign where so much of the public discussion and debate has been about economics, budgets, taxes, surpluses.

It reminded me that a lot of what works best in our communities does not involve money. 

For instance, most discussions about health in Australia focus almost entirely on economic activity. Until a person has an economic exchange – buys a pill, consults a doctor, has a blood test – they are not seen as being part of the health system because they have no cost. Yet we know one of the most extensive and effective forms of health care is self-care. How much does it cost me to brush my teeth each day? Is it just the cost of the toothpaste and the water I use? What is the cost if I don’t clean my teeth? What if I choose to; exercise or not exercise, to eat healthy foods or eat junk foods, drink alcohol to excess or more moderately? Self-care is one of the critical elements of health, but how do we cost it? No money changes hands. What is the market for self-care?

Most of us also have people around us who play a role in our health and wellbeing. Our family, our friends, our colleagues, all of whom may notice when we are no longer taking good care of ourselves and suggest various health interventions. If we become tired and grumpy, it is our families, friends and colleagues who may tell us to ease back a little, get some sleep, do some more exercise, eat more healthy foods, or cut back on our alcohol consumption. How do we cost this immediate circle of support, this health intervention where no money changes hands? What is the market for caring friends and families?

At a broader community level, what is the cost of what might be termed public health infrastructure? I regularly walk up Red Hill early in the morning with my dog. How much is that worth? How much more is it worth if I get to walk through a mob of kangaroos or see an echidna or a kookaburra? What if I run into a neighbour walking their dog and we have a chat? How do we value this native bushland near my house and its contribution to the health and wellbeing of the community? Is it simply the market value, how much it could be sold for, how many square metres of expensive new apartments could be squeezed onto the land? 

It is not just in healthcare where narrowing the focus to an economic lens only gives us a limited perspective. In almost every area of human services, the values being enacted have an intrinsic worth that goes largely unmeasured, unacknowledged.

When I walk into an aged care home, a school, a drug treatment service or a homeless service, I don’t look at the economic exchanges taking place, I look to the values being enacted. Are people being treated with respect and dignity, are there smiles, warmth, caring, mutual respect, listening? Are people standing over others or sitting with them? Is it a place that feels relaxed, comfortable, patient?

This recognition of the importance of enacting human values seems to have slipped off our public policy agenda, except where it can be shown to provide an economic benefit.

Companies now readily acknowledge the benefits of having a positive workplace culture where values such as fairness and respect are encouraged and supported. They know that creating these workplace cultures enables them to not only attract and retain the best staff, but also to be more productive. 

Similarly, many customer service companies seek to enact values they know attract more customers to spend more money. There is an economic payoff to making people feel welcome in your retail outlet, at your restaurant or hotel. This is why so many companies employ various methods to associate positive values with their products and services, and ensure they are continuously monitoring the customer experience.

While enacting positive values can deliver increased economic benefits, the real value of communities that look out for each other goes well beyond a market value.

Charities are in many ways the keepers of values, the organisations that seek to support more connections between people, more empathy, understanding, creativity, respect and care. Charities are not just about economic exchanges, but the realisation of potential. Unfortunately, too many charities have not been very good at telling this story, at promoting what is achieved and how it makes a difference in the way people feel, in the way people live their lives.

As the election campaign draws to a close, and people grow increasingly tired of listening to disputes about budget figures, costings and projected surpluses, opportunities are emerging to move beyond the conflation of self-interest with economic-interest. We all know we are much more than individual economic units contributing to a national economy.

My experience over the last week suggests there is a growing thirst in Australia for meaningful discussions about the way we live our lives. It is a thirst more charities should seek to quench.

Read on Pro Bono News:  a-thirst-for-more-than-money