On "Measuring the Progress of Societies"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 12/17/2007 02:04:00 AM

I have used the term "growth lubber" to put down those who make economic growth (as exemplified by measures such as GDP) their principal measure of human well-being. Few will argue that economic growth is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for human well-being. While GDP and other income-based measures of human progress have been criticized for being highly imperfect indicators of human progress, not much progress has been made either on establishing alternate criteria.

It's not that folks haven't tried to come up with better criteria for measuring progress than income-based measures like GDP. For instance, the UN Development Program (UNDP) uses the Human Development Index (HDI) which combines measures of income, health, and education to gauge, well, human development. The tiny state of Bhutan prefers to use Gross National Happiness as an indicator of progress. Even China monkeyed around with "Green GDP" for a while until local officials complained that these statistics painted a grim picture of China's growth as being at the expense of the environment. I myself am partial to Amartya Sen's Capabilities Approach which is more concerned with what people are capable of doing or being instead of just having.

Earlier this year, the OECD held a forum on "Measuring the Progress of Human Societies" together with the EU, UNDP, and World Bank that seeks to come up with a better, and more importantly, standardized measure of progress. As you can imagine, there is still much that is up in the air. For starters, how do environmental considerations figure into measuring progress? Or, what are we to make of things that may make some happy which give rise to others' misery? These are classic social justice and political theory questions that need to be ironed out in coming up with measures of human progress. It's certainly a difficult task, but if it gets peoples' minds off GDP-itis, it will be worth the effort. In the same way that the world looks like a nail if you're a hammer, the world looks a certain--and rather undesirable--way if viewed through the prism of GDP-itis. Above is the first film clip about the OECD's search for alternative measures; the second one is available on YouTube. Below are some excerpts as well from the Istanbul Declaration which came out of the event:
We, the representatives of the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank, recognise that while our societies have become more complex, they are more closely linked than ever. Yet they retain differences in history, culture, and in economic and social development.

We are encouraged that initiatives to measure societal progress through statistical indicators have been launched in several countries and on all continents. Although these initiatives are based on different methodologies, cultural and intellectual paradigms, and degrees of involvement of key stakeholders, they reveal an emerging consensus on the need to undertake the measurement of societal progress in every country, going beyond conventional economic measures such as GDP per capita. Indeed, the United Nation’s system of indicators to measure progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is a step in that direction.

A culture of evidence-based decision making has to be promoted at all levels, to increase the welfare of societies. And in the “information age,” welfare depends in part on transparent and accountable public policy making. The availability of statistical indicators of economic, social, and environmental outcomes and their dissemination to citizens can contribute to promoting good governance and the improvement of democratic processes. It can strengthen citizens’ capacity to influence the goals of the societies they live in through debate and consensus building, and increase the accountability of public policies.

We affirm our commitment to measuring and fostering the progress of societies in all their dimensions and to supporting initiatives at the country level. We urge statistical offices, public and private organisations, and academic experts to work alongside representatives of their communities to produce high-quality, facts-based information that can be used by all of society to form a shared view of societal well-being and its evolution over time.

Official statistics are a key “public good” that foster the progress of societies. The development of indicators of societal progress offers an opportunity to reinforce the role of national statistical authorities as key providers of relevant, reliable, timely and comparable data and the indicators required for national and international reporting. We encourage governments to invest resources to develop reliable data and indicators according to the “Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics” adopted by the United Nations in 1994.

To take this work forward we need to:
- encourage communities to consider for themselves what “progress” means in the 21st century;
- share best practices on the measurement of societal progress and increase the awareness of the need to do so using sound and reliable methodologies;
- stimulate international debate, based on solid statistical data and indicators, on both global issues of societal progress and comparisons of such progress;
- produce a broader, shared, public understanding of changing conditions, while highlighting areas of significant change or inadequate knowledge;
- advocate appropriate investment in building statistical capacity, especially in developing countries, to improve the availability of data and indicators needed to guide development programs and report on progress toward international goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals.

Much work remains to be done, and the commitment of all partners is essential if we are to meet the demand that is emerging from our societies. We recognise that efforts will be commensurate with the capacity of countries at different levels of development. We invite both public and private organisations to contribute to this ambitious effort to foster the world’s progress and we welcome initiatives at the local, regional, national and international levels.