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Governments Redefining Development

by Terra Lawson-Remer
August 14, 2013

School children in Thimphu, Bhutan, September 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Singye Wangchuk). School children in Thimphu, Bhutan, September 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Singye Wangchuk).


As I discussed in my last post, governments and international organizations are increasingly taking an interest in alternative ways to measure countries’ development, outside of the traditional measure of gross domestic product.

For example, in 2008, the French government commissioned a report from a group of leading social scientists, known as the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, to explore the limitations of current economic and social measures and to propose alternatives. The major recommendations of the commission’s 2009 Report are instructive and mark a departure from conventional wisdom. The commission concluded that, in today’s complex economy, better measures of economic performance are required, specifically ones that take into account household income, wealth distribution, and inequality. More important, the commission endorsed a multidimensional take on wellbeing, which considers factors such as health, education, ability to find work, political voice and governance, social connections and relationships, sustainability and environmental concerns, and economic and physical insecurity. In a relatively radical departure from previous thinking, the commission argued that this diverse set of quality-of-life indicators should consider inequalities, not just overall wealth.

The small kingdom of Bhutan has also become a leader in the alternative development measurement movement. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, first developed by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972, aims to chart progress according to the deceptively straightforward metric of “happiness.” Recognizing, as Aristotle did, that happiness does not derive solely from material possessions, the Bhutanese government has rejected per capita income as a measure of wellbeing. Calculated primarily based on household surveys and government data, the index considers seven core indicators of wellbeing: economic, environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social, and political.

The Bhutanese government has earned international recognition for its alternative index, successfully championing a UN resolution to include happiness as a development indicator. To be sure, Bhutan’s index is idealistic and might be too complex to be adopted on a global scale. But this tiny country has helped change the thinking of leading development economists and world leaders. Last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a “new economic paradigm” based on the premise that “Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.” With such high-level backing from world leaders, governments, and international organizations, “alternative” measurements of development and wellness might soon be commonplace.

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  • Posted by Michele Gonzalez

    Terra, Thank you so much for writting on this challenging and important topic. I believe we need to define “progress” before defining how to measure it. And that is actually the challenge. Based on our definitions, in that way we are going to propose metrics for understanding it better, and beyond that, we are going to formualte strategies and plans for foster it. I am afraid there will be no end for this conversation, but as development practitioners, defining it as end state and then strategize and plan it will require a starting point, which will inform the way of doing business, the way of measuring success. In World Vision, as a child-focused organization, we believe that the well being of people is visibly seen through the well being of children. Healthy societies will raise healthy children – from the holistic understanding of healthyness -. We believe children are the most vulnerable when societies are broken, families are disfunctional and the government, as the main duty bearer, fails them. How to encourage Goverments, development practitioners and the society as a whole to understand that progress is beyond to how much you can have on your pocket, but it is the quality of life individuals enjoy within their own environment. As organization, we bet for a better future for children. We believe that working with the Government, with society, parents, schools, and other key players for the local development, we will create the healthy environment children need for their holistic development and maximize their potential.

    Please share your thoughts with me about my comments on your blog.

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