In the past thirty years, a growing global movement has developed which is seriously questioning the dominance of GDP as the most influential global measure of national progress. This movement has challenged the model of progress which stands behind the GDP. These critiques and the drivers behind the movement have drawn together gradually from diverse sources including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Human Development Index; the Kingdom of Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness program; the environmental movement culminating in the current Sustaining Development Goals (SDGs); the women’s movement; the community planning and co-design movement; Canada’s pioneering community research project, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing; organisational management concepts such of the ‘Triple Bottom and ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’; happiness research in psychology; and quality of life studies.
Over the past 10 years or so there has been an explosion of interest in producing measures of societal progress … that go beyond GDP to represent a broader view of the ways in which societies are progressing and regressing … Initiatives to do just this are being run in many countries rich and poor … by governments, by civil society, by academics and the private sector … A world movement is emerging and the linkage between statistical indicators, policy design and democratic assessment of the performance of a country (a region, a city etc) is at its core.OECD Statistics Directorate 2008
For many years these various projects and movements had mostly developed apart, despite a shared concern about the inadequacies of GDP. However, in 2004, a significant catalyst and unifying force emerged in the OECD’s Global Project ‘Measuring the Progress of Societies’ (MPS), led by Italian economist and statistician Enrico Giovannini. This project was specifically designed to create a global platform to bring these different elements together and to promote a global debate about the meaning of progress ‘beyond GDP’, and not just its measurement. In 2007, these goals were formally agreed in a joint Declaration by the OECD, the UN, the European Commission and the World Bank, at the OECD World Forum in Istanbul.
The OECD has pursued these goals with energy and flair. Initiatives have been launched and workshops convened in all global regions. Six World Forums since 2004 (in Italy, Turkey, South Korea (twice), India and Mexico) have each attracted up to 1,500 participants. Much has been done to raise awareness and change attitudes, concerning, for example, ‘the growing gap that exists between the image conveyed by official macro-‐economic statistics such as GDP, and the perceptions of ordinary people about their own socioeconomic conditions’ (OECD 2011). Research networks have been set up (the ‘Global Progress Research Network’); a major global internet platform and knowledge base developed (‘Wikiprogress’); and a new progress measurement framework built (the ‘OECD Better Life Index’).
Following this lead, other international initiatives have been moving in the same direction. The European Union launched its long term ‘Beyond GDP’ project in 2007. The World Economics Forum set up a Global Council initiative on ‘Benchmarking the Progress in Societies’ in 2008. The International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (above) was established in 2009. The Pittsburgh Summit of the G20 called for work on measurement methods that ‘better take into account the social and environmental dimensions of economic development’. The UN General Assembly held a special workshop and then passed a unanimous resolution in 2012 on incorporating happiness and wellbeing measures into development programs.
In the unfolding of a global movement, what began as a statistical problem has been gradually transformed into a set of fundamental questions about the nature of progress in the 21st century.
These questions have become steadily more urgent and insistent under the pressure of global problems such as climate change and the world financial crisis.
This global movement is coalescing among a large number of individuals and organisations around the need to shift economies to one broadly focused on ‘sustainable wellbeing’. They may have used different approaches and different languages, but all share a common goal.
This alignment of common interests has led to the formation of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll), a 10-year project that aims to catalyse systems change toward the realisation of a Wellbeing Economy. WEAll does this by linking and coordinating activity at all levels of the Wellbeing Economy movement, to create a critical mass of people and organisations working toward a common vision, promoting the vision that the Wellbeing Economy is the destination that all diverse efforts are working toward.
Salvaris (2013) identifies six key lessons and agreements from this global movement to redefine progress.
- The GDP, despite its value as measure of market economic activity, is an inadequate measure of societal progress and perhaps even of economic wellbeing and persisting in using it as such will have negative impacts on economic and social progress.
- Societies need to develop better and more integrated (‘holistic’) measures of their progress; at a minimum, these should take account of five interdependent domains of broad societal progress, wellbeing and sustainability: economy, society, culture, environment and governance.
- Better measures of progress must take into account qualitative and not just quantitative dimensions of progress, such as subjective wellbeing, community belonging, relationships, life satisfaction and happiness.
- The underlying problem we are facing may not be the wrong measures but the wrong model of societal progress: and a better model of true progress than ‘increasing economic production’ would be ‘increasing equitable and sustainable wellbeing’.
- Developing a new progress paradigm and new measures is in part, a civic and democratic task that requires the engagement of citizens, working with academics and scientists and policy makers.
- People and governments now need urgently to consider the implications of these new progress measures, and how they can be best understood and applied in practice (‘mainstreamed’).