31 October 2016
In Africa, we are working
hard at 'progressing'. But what do we mean by progress? A happy, healthy,
resilient society? Or growing our economy as fast as we can? Are the two
synonymous? Certainly not! After aiming for rapid economic growth, we are now
living in a time of economic breakdowns, environmental tipping points (i.e. our
life support systems are being degraded to an extent that they can not support
human life, never mind human development), social disruption, and unrivaled
inequality. In the last 16 years, half of the growth in global wealth has gone
to 1% of the population, while only 1% has gone to the poorest half. This is
not a development paradigm we should be encouraging.
Last year, the UN Sustainable Development Goals were universally agreed upon
(after much to and fro). These offer a detailed dashboard of goals, targets and
indicators. Over the years, there have been a large number of alternative
approaches to aggregate indicators of societal wellbeing and progress. We
ourselves in Namibia, have been busy looking at how a wellbeing economy could
be used to focus our development.
A recent paper published in the journal 'Ecological Economics', investigates,
quite aptly, alternative methods to relate the SDGs to overall measures of
sustainable wellbeing. They come up with what they call a 'Sustainale Wellbeing
Index' (SWI) that connects with and complements the SDG dashboard.
There are currently three basic approaches that are used in looking at
measuring progress. Of course, the first, is the most popular currently, and
focuses on consumption, production, and wealth based indicators. These include
conventional measures of national progress, like the Gross Domestic Product
(GDP), which are based on production and consumption of goods and services in
markets. GDP was never designed as a measure of societal wellbeing, but a
popular assumption is that more consumption leads to a higher wellbeing. This
assumption has been challenged for decades and the problems with using GDP as
an indicator of national wellbeing are well known. Our visitor, Joseph
Stiglitz, who came to Namibia recently, is one of the biggest voices in
this arena. There are several alternatives within this group that have
attempted to correct some of the problems, such as Genuine Savings, Inclusive
Wealth Index, Genuine Progress Indicators, and others.
The second approach is the
aggregation of indicators into a unit-less index. Then we run into problems
with weighting. A recent example of this is the OECD Better Life Index (http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/
Another example is the Social Progress Index (recently adopted in
The third approach, is the contribution of surveys on subjective wellbeing.
These include subjective life satisfaction scores. Our project, the For
Progress Namibia project, has in the past years focused on a mix of the second
and the third approach. Of course, the paper's argument, is that individual
perceptions are limited, and they may be culturally biased, and people may be
unaware of some of the factors that contribute to wellbeing (advertising and
marketing of products have of course also shown to manipulate these
perceptions). For example, the contributions of natural capital and ecosystem
services may bot be well perceived by individuals and may not show up in life
satisfaction surveys. Individuals do not directly perceive the climate
regulation benefits of forests or the storm protection benefits of coastal
wetlands, although these might be critical to their sustainable wellbeing.
All of the three approaches have their positive and negative aspects. Can we
construct a hybrid indicator that incorporates most of the positive aspects and
minimizes the negative? The paper in Ecological Economics comes up with a
really nice and neat hybrid index that could be a combination of three basic
parts, each covering the contributions to sustainable wellbeing from the
dimensions of economy, society, and nature.
We need an aggregate indicator to assess the relative contribution of each
of the SDGs and their interactions with each other in order to
assess overall progress, and the Sustainable Wellbeing Index might very
well be it.
There are of course many things going on in Namibia right now, from Phosphate
Mining (everyone's ears are burning), to Schlettwein's warning calls about our
financial issues, to our water crisis. The reason why we talk about this
topic in particular, and not the 'more burning ones', is because it is the
fundamental underlying foundation for everything else. If we don't find a proper
meaning of progress, and how to measure it, we will continue to make decisions
without a systems-thinking approach, and without the mindset of a happy,
healthy, thriving population in mind. Certainly, looking at indicators which
work towards measuring this, would go a long way to solve our problems.
Picture credit: Steve Cutts
Paper reference: Constanza et al.
and measuring sustainable wellbeing in connection with the UN Sustainable
Development Goals. Ecological Economics. 130: 350-355.