Beyond GDP: Birth weight, hours slept, eyeglasses among innovative yardsticks of well-being, wealth

May 18th, 2014
Birth weight, hours slept, eyeglasses, city birds, washing machines, teenage schoolgirls and other quantifiable signals of well-being can help measure the wealth of a nation beyond Gross Domestic Product, experts say.

Moving beyond GDP to sustainability—the focus of a UN­-backed high-level symposium May 19 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—requires broad indicators of a nation's social and environmental well-being to complement measures of economic production and income.

"World leaders are acknowledging GDP's limitations, as well as the need for broader measures to evaluate societal progress," says Anantha Duraiappah, Director of UN University's International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, co-host of the symposium together with the Malaysian Industry ­Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), in partnership with the Japanese Ministry of Environment and the Sime Darby Foundation.

Changes in natural capital (such as forest cover) can be relatively easy to quantify.

However, beyond education and health care statistics, how can social and individual well-being be tallied up?

"With policymakers focusing on complex indicators to measure societies' success, it often seems as if they are missing some of the most meaningful and simple signs there are," IHDP reports in a new edition of its magazine, "Human Dimensions."

Candidates include:

BIRTH WEIGHT

Each ounce of birth weight can add significantly to a child's overall quality of life over time. Beyond increasing the chance of survival, the effects of birth weight stretch far into a child's lifetime. Babies weighing less than 3 pounds 10 ounces at birth are more likely to have negative long-term health effects. And many that appear to be developing normally arrive at school with learning disorders and behavioural difficulties. As a health indicator, why not start counting the rolls of fat on the limbs of our countries' babies?

HOURS SLEPT

If we were to count our societies' sleeping hours, we'd likely have a good idea of strength of its social bonds, sense of independence and optimism. More sleep has been proven to lead to better interpersonal relationships, emotional intelligence and empathy toward others. It also contributes to positive thinking, impulse control, self-regard and assertiveness. Altogether, sleep makes for a happy, healthy and productive population.

EYEGLASSES

With 700 million people in the developing world lacking affordable vision correction, eyeglasses provide an important service: raising individuals' potential. Without glasses, school kids miss out on their potential to learn, and adults are unable to make the best of their most productive years. Glasses raise individual's earning prospects by 20 per cent. Globally, uncorrected vision results in US$202 billion economic loss. Wanting to measure productivity, we can't forget to measure its basic supporting factors. For example, simply being able to see.

CITY BIRDS

When you wake up to the sound of chirping birds, you are listening to one of the simplest indicators of local environmental health. Multiple programmes across the globe are empowering citizens to count, identify and register the birds they encounter, to aid researchers in their understanding of ecosystem changes. Not only are birds easy to see, and fun to identify, their position at the top of the food chain makes them susceptible to accumulating chemicals, and loss of biodiversity in the wider ecosystem. These factors make them a good and countable indicator of environmental hazards, climate change and biodiversity loss.

WASHING MACHINES

A man pulling his laundry from a washing machine is more well-off than a big portion of the world population: only 2 of 7 billion have access to a washer. Requiring water and power to function, washing machine density is also a symbol of infrastructural density. More importantly, this humble appliance has transformed the nature of household work. With one, homemakers can spend their time and energy toward more noble (and interesting) pursuits.

TEENAGE SCHOOLGIRLS

A crowd of teenaged schoolgirls lining the streets of an African town is a rare sight. Fewer than one in five girls in sub-Saharan Africa are able to attend secondary school. A girl who does is making a big contribution to curbing population growth and raising global productivity. Statistically, she will marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. And with each extra year of education, she is able to raise future wages by 15-25 per cent. In this, counting teenaged school girls equates to predicting natural, social and economic sustainability.

Other candidates include smiles, random acts of kindness—even popsicles (the % of people who believe a child can leave their home, go to the nearest place to buy a popsicle or snack, and come home alone safely. See http://solari.com/articles/popsicle_index/)

While some of these may be considered whimsical, says Prof. Duraiappah: "New research has begun to show that people often value non­-material wealth just as highly, if not more, than monetary wealth."

"Moreover, as countries develop, there are diminishing returns to quality of life from economic output – indeed, the relationship becomes increasingly contentious and questionable. Growing inequality within and across nations is becoming a force for social tension and conflict in developing and developed countries alike, where calls grow for a more equal society and sustainability in a world of human­-driven climate change and losses of biodiversity and ecosystem services."

UNU-IHDP and the UN Environment Programme have led development of the Inclusive Wealth Index, debuted at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero.

A new, internationally-comprehensive Inclusive Wealth Report (IWR), including a major focus on human capital in national account measurement, will by released in Nagoya Japan in November.

A two-day IWR experts' workshop and half-day IWR Science Committee Meeting precedes the May 19 public symposium (agenda: http://ihdp.unu.edu/file/download/11677).

Among the more than 500 attendees expected is eminent Cambridge University economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, a leader of the work on which the Inclusive Wealth Report is based.

In an article for UNU-IHDP on questions of Inclusive Wealth and investments, Prof. Dasgupta writes: "When the government invests in roads, the picture drawn is of bulldozers levelling the ground and tarmac being laid by men in hard hats."

"But because the notion of 'capital' extends beyond reproducible assets to include human capital, natural capital, and knowledge and institutions (the enabling assets), we need to stretch the notion of 'investment.' To leave a forest unmolested would be to invest in the forest; to allow a fishery to restock under natural conditions would be to invest in the fishery; and so on."

"That suggests investment amounts to deferred consumption. But the matter is subtler. Providing additional food to undernourished people by means of, say, food guarantee schemes not only increases their current well-being (food is enjoyable), it enables them also to be more productive in the future (they will have greater strength and stamina) and to live longer."

"Because their human capital increases, the additional food intake should count not only as consumption but also as investment. Note, though, that food intake by the well-nourished doesn't alter their nutritional status, which means the intake is pure consumption, not investment."

Says Zakri Abdul Hamid, a member of the UN Secretary-General's Scientific Advisory Board, Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and co-chair of MIGHT: "Looking beyond GDP doesn't mean its elimination. GDP provides valuable information about a country's production, expenditure, and income streams, as well as the flow of goods across borders."

"GDP and other traditional yardsticks will continue to inform our understanding of economic performance, but the world's perspective on progress needs to be enlarged, balanced and integrated with social and environmental indicators. Only in this way can we respond to the unprecedented opportunities and challenges facing us in the 21st Century."

Provided by Malaysian Industry ­Government Group for High Technology

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