UPFRONT But is it progress?

Growth – it’s wonderful thing. Unless, of course, it’s cancer, or possibly prison inmates. One of the expanding contributors to America’s GDP is the incarceration industry – it’s been growing at robust rate of 6.2 percent since the early 1990s, notes Ron Colman founder/director of Canadian research group, GPI Atlantic.
The problem with GDP is that more is always better, no matter what is growing. Which is what makes its use as any sort of measure for country’s wellbeing somewhat simple-minded, says Colman.
Take Auckland traffic congestion, for instance. More commuters on the roads, more money spent on cars and petrol, more pollution, more traffic accidents – they all make positive addition to New Zealand’s GDP. On the other hand car-pooling would probably slow GDP growth even as it saves fuel costs and fouled air – not to mention the health and sanity of traffic-bound workers.
“While GDP is fine for measuring the expansion or contraction of economic activity, it’s been misused as measure of how well off we are,” says Colman. “In fact it is being used for purpose its original architects had never intended.”
Colman, whose non-profit group is dedicated to constructing what’s known as the GPI or genuine progress index, was in New Zealand last month to share knowledge gleaned from his work with the Canadian government on its “Index of Wellbeing”.
“What we’re trying to do,” he says, “is to produce more accurate and comprehensive measure of wellbeing and progress that takes into account things like the health of the people, the value of natural resources, the safety of communities or value of unpaid work.”
It’s not new idea. New Zealand’s Marilyn Waring was one of its early proponents when she started exploring the “invisible” economic contribution of unpaid labour (If Women Counted: new feminist economics) in the 1980s. And in Canada, Colman’s group has spent eight years working on pilot project for GPI in Nova Scotia before going national.
But it’s an idea that is now starting to gain serious ground, says Colman.
“In the past 10 years there’s been an increasing awareness of the need for such measure – realisation that if, for example, you don’t take stock of the health of natural resources it means you can over-log or over-fish without it even registering in the nation’s accounting. There’s more recognition that it’s essential to develop more accurate measures of progress.”
In New Zealand, for instance, Statistics NZ has done good work on sustainable development indicators whilst the Ministry of Social Development now produces regular “social report”, notes Colman.
“The next step is integrating this work and adopting it as the country’s core measure of progress.”
This won’t be ‘simple-minded’ one-number portmanteau for progress but rather series of measures designed to indicate where country is progressing strongly – or not, says Colman.
“It’s not rocket science. We know how to measure all those things and there is broad agreement on what should be measured – such as healthy population that is well-educated, living in strong, safe communities and good quality environment. No-one disagrees on those values.”
Economic measures such as standard of living, employment (both quantity and quality) and median incomes will all be included in the GPI but will encompass more than just quantity.
“For instance, GDP tells you how much income you’re producing but not how it’s shared. Is the gap between rich and poor growing? Are poverty rates going up or down?”
Colman says the necessity for having an alternative measure of progress is becoming more “vivid” as the reality of finite natural resources and climate change sinks in.
“These days there is some kind of urgency that if we don’t measure progress properly, then we are in trouble. The stakes are high and people realise this is now matter of necessity.”
• More information at www.gpiatlantic.org

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