Beyond Apologies: An Interview with Debra Efroymson

Debra Efroymson is Regional Director for HealthBridge, a global nonprofit organization that aims to improve the health of vulnerable populations and to develop new solutions to preventing and reducing the inequitable distribution of noncommunicable diseases. Based in Bangladesh, she has written about livable cities, tobacco control and NCD prevention. Her new book Beyond Apologies: Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing is about the need to prioritize wellbeing over consumption. It presents thirteen myths about economics that prevent people from acting for health, the environment, and other social causes, and offers suggestions on identifying and achieving a better way. Corporations and Health Watch’s Nicholas Freudenberg recently asked Efroymson a few questions.


CHW: Your new book Beyond Apologies debunks some the myths that moneyed interests and big corporations use to justify their domination of our society and provides a roadmap for those who want to show another world is possible. What made you decide to write this book? And why did you choose to organize the book around these prevalent myths?


DE: Having worked on public health and environmental issues for many years, I constantly hear that we must first focus on economic growth. So I was enormously frustrated with how corporations and their spokespeople (including economists and politicians) set the agenda. Meanwhile, many social activists (including myself at first) are afraid to learn about economics because we think it’s a highly technical, difficult, or boring subject, with lots of complicated formulas. When economists start talking, we keep quiet, and thus we are not able to defend our causes effectively. So I saw no choice but to start doing research on the topic, and then to share what I was learning with others. I chose the myth format because it seemed like a sensible way to organize the ideas: if people can realize that what they hear so often about economics simply isn’t true, that’s the first step in resistance.


CHW: How do you think that health, environmental and social justice activists can use your book to guide their efforts to create a healthier, more sustainable and more just world?


DE: I view the book as a tool that activists can use to advance their cause and help them stop apologizing for wanting to put health, the environment, the poor, and so on before economics. Having learned so much while writing it, I am now able to defend my causes strongly and to see the fallacies in the arguments put forward by economists and their apologists. I am hoping that the book will teach activists how to question those arguments, and to look at economics in a more sensible way. While most of the book is about countering myths, Part II of the book provides various specific suggestions for taking action, based on real life experience in winning advocacy battles, including many in which I have taken part.


CHW: What do you mean by an “economics of well-being”? How is that different from the economics that guides most governments and corporations?


DE: What I call “mainstream” economics is all about numbers that really don’t tell us very much, such as GDP per capita. Those numbers serve as an excuse for enacting policies that further enrich the wealthy and impoverish the poor. What we need, rather than more production, more consumption, more GDP growth, and more inequality, is a focus on all that matters: health, education, the environment, strong social ties…all these things that lead to a decent life. A system that focuses on people’s genuine priorities is what I refer to as an ”economics of wellbeing”.


CHW: You discuss some of the practical steps needed to move from a vision of well-being to practical implementation. What are some of the current organizations and movements that we should look to for models of such campaigns?


DE: There are a lot of good groups doing good work; far too many to mention here. The international social justice, anti-globalization movement is critical—the kinds of groups that fight the influence of the World Trade Organization. I think one really key group is Public Citizen, which for instance is fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a truly disastrous trade treaty that will greatly enhance the power of corporations at the expense of governments and populations. I also think the movement to limit corporate contributions to politicians is absolutely essential in order to free politicians from their influence.


CHW: What are you doing to make the book available to prospective readers?


DE: We have printed the book in Bangladesh, where I am based, but since I want an international audience, including those who do not have a credit card or cannot afford a book, I am also making it available for free online. Two places that people can download it are the Institute of Wellbeing in Bangladesh and Scribd. And for all the non-readers out there, or those who are not comfortable reading in English, I am planning a series of videos in various languages that will explain, in short and (I hope) entertaining skits, the main points of the book. Those will start to go up on the Institute of Wellbeing website within a few months.