Associate Professor Saikia was not so sure. “I wanted a job with scope to work in society, rather than in a corporate environment,” he says.
He set his sights on demographics, taking a job in his home state of Assam, working in farming communities and tribal areas.
It was to set in train a career that has led to a fundamental shift in the way we think about demographics and development, focusing on holistic “wellbeing” rather than narrow momentary markers.
A master in demographics from the London School of Economics and a PhD at Flinders University followed, where he spent most of his time thinking about women’s empowerment – especially in India.
Then, in 2007, Associate Professor Saikia read a news article about Timor-Leste, which was ultimately to change the way that country thought about its development.
“Since Timor-Leste’s independence, the birth rate had gone up. The Total Fertility Rate – the average number of children a woman has in her reproductive life – was nearly eight,” he says. “And because it was a new nation, the infrastructure was not there.”
With financial backing from Flinders he headed to Dili to investigate. He was there for a month, publishing the first study on fertility in Timor-Leste. But his fascination with the Asia Pacific was now cemented.
His next project was in Bougainville where, with Associate Professor James Chalmers from the UN, and Flinders colleague Associate Professor Gour Dasvarma, he worked on a United Nations commissioned, island-wide survey to measure the Human Development Index (HDI). The experience was to have profound, far-reaching consequences.
UN guidelines list three components of the HDI – life expectancy, per capita income, and education.
“When we analysed the data, the index was very, very low,” says Associate Professor Saikia. “But on the ground people were very healthy, and quite happy – extremely happy in the more remote areas. We realised that it was the per capita income component that was pulling down the whole index.”
Most villagers, who lived in a barter economy, reported no income.
Saikia read more about the concept of measuring human development through a capability approach by Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, as well as the Happiness Index, used in Bhutan.
The Wellbeing Index was well on the way to being born.
He then saw an interview with the Chief Minister of Assam referencing Bhutan's Happiness Index and saying he was keen to do a happiness survey in his state. He was quick to offer his services.
Associate Professor Saikia assembled his old Bougainville team and, again backed by Flinders, headed to Assam. There he met the Bhutanese experts in the Happiness Index, trained by the Oxford Poverty and Human Initiative (OPHI) group.
But as Saikia’s team worked, they found that the concept of “happiness” limiting.
“We began to think more holistically – and that was the start of the wellbeing index. We constructed the whole concept there.”
The Wellbeing Index is a mixture of the objective and subjective. It takes into account psychological and emotional health as well as physical, and people’s relationship with their environment, and with the government.
Data is gathered through a long questionnaire and then processed through a mathematical model developed by OPHI.
Armed with his new Wellbeing Index, Saikia was intent on showing its value as a developmental tool.
Thanks to the high fertility rates, 72% of the Timorese population is under 35.
“This doesn’t have to be a negative. Youth can be a strength that can be turned into demographic dividend in the future. That is what South Korea did particularly well – the situation there 30 to 40 years ago was very similar to Timor.
“Every country goes through a demographic transition where fertility starts dropping, and when it drops there’s a window of opportunity to invest meaningfully in education and training. You have more people of working age being economically more productive.
“But if they use the time well, it can be turned into a dividend – although that is not automatic,” says Associate Professor Saikia.
Timor Leste was intrigued enough to launch a collaboration with Associate Professor Saikia’s Flinders team and the UN to produce a report that would highlight potential policies.
The resulting Timor-Leste Human Development Report took two and a half years to produce and came out in 2018. It paints a detailed picture of the possibilities for Timor Leste up to 2050 or so, and establishes the Wellbeing Index as part of the developmental architecture.
Saikia received Australian Research Council funding and is partnering with the Australian Government through DFAT, the UN, the government of Timor-Leste, and the International Organisation for Migration in a project to assess the wellbeing of the families who have worked seasonally in Australia and returned home.
With remittance the second highest contributor to the national income in Timor Leste after oil, the project is a vital one.
“The income they earn from foreign countries is very important, but they haven't done any work to see how it is having an impact on the society.”
Associate Professor Saikia says he will continue to focus on Australia and the Indo-Pacific as he develops the Wellbeing Index further as a holistic tool for demographers and policymakers.
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