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Can nations measure well-being?

  • Ecology
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Geography
  • Literature
  • Political Science


The attempt to measure quality of life over time and between places is still in its infancy, writes Peter Shergold for the Centre for Social Impact. It was in May 1968 that Robert Kennedy, with characteristically brilliant oratory, identified the abject failure of governments to measure the quality of life afforded their people. The traditional statistic – per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play; it does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials … It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Listen to the speech on YouTube: it will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Two generations on, governments are struggling to address Kennedy’s challenge. As not-for-profits increasingly seek to measure social returns on investment, and companies to give quantitative dimension to societal as well as financial value, give a thought to the world’s statisticians. Frustrated with the shortfalls of GDP as an indicator of wellbeing, they are struggling to find alternative means to measure progress in the quality of people’s lives. It’s not a moment too soon. Democracy is under challenge. Levels of trust in politicians are worryingly low. Less remarked upon is the lack of public confidence in official statistics. In France and the UK, for instance, only one-third of citizens believe official figures. Not surprisingly there is a renewed sense of urgency amongst government statisticians. In May this year the OECD, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, launched the Better Life Index. It builds on a French initiative, the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, led by renowned American economist Joseph Stiglitz, which reported in 2010. The Commission concluded that for many purposes there were better economic statistics than a measure of production, GDP: levels of real household income, for example, or the extent of income inequality. It is not that GDP is a wrong measure but that it is often inappropriate as a measure what people care about. In many instances data on social or environmental wellbeing is more relevant. The Better Life Index seeks to respond to the Commission’s challenge. It measures 11 dimensions, with 1-3 indicators in each: housing, income, jobs, education, the environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance. It’s proposed to add more criteria in the future. The challenge, of course, is how to address the relative importance of such indices of well-being. The OECD deftly sidesteps the problem by making the index interactive. Each visitor can weight the variables on-line as they want and share their views with others via Twitter or Facebook. This is statistics in the age of social media. Read more > Image: stevenharris / flickr

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