Measuring Progress - How should we do it?


Progress Namibia - Measuring Progress - How should we do it?
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 Paraguay).

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. 2016. Modelling and measuring sustainable wellbeing in connection with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ecological Economics. 130: 350-355.