How could we measure well-being in a crisis? Some thoughts from Korea

OECD Busan Iconference on ‘statistics, knowledge and policy’, organized by its ‘Measuring the Progress of Societies’ project. The massive conference centre looks out on a consumerist paradise, including a giant Tesco’s supermarket (everything’s big here, giving you that sense of suddenly having shrunk that you get in Tiananmen square) and what declares itself to be the world’s biggest department store, complete with ice rink, spa etc, so perhaps it’s an appropriate setting to talk about what matters in terms of human wellbeing, and how to measure it. Yesterday was the first day of three, but it’s already got me thinking about the tensions between efforts to fill 3 gaps in our knowledge –         a more holistic understanding of well-being, including issues such as happiness v wealth cartoonhappiness and environmental sustainability, that remedies some of the failings of GDP (the cartoons offer two opposed versions of that story) –         the need for real time or ‘high frequency’ data on what is happening in poor countries when crises hit. The current crisis has revealed a remarkable gap in our ability to find out fast what is happening to poor people when a shock hits. –         the weak statistical systems of many low income countries Bangkok-happiness-indexThe Stiglitz Commission recently reported back to President Sarkozy (see previous blog) with recommendations that were essentially pretty complex: it’s futile to try and replace GDP with another single indicator. Instead, what we need is dashboards of dozens of indicators, from which people can construct composites that capture what they want to measure (human security, safety, material well-being, health etc). Well fine, but that militates against sorting out gaps 2 and 3. You can’t collect high frequency data on dozens of issues, and in any case low income countries struggle to meet even current data requirements.  So my question is ‘given weak statistical capacity, is there any one thing we could measure easily and at regular intervals (eg monthly) that would give a better guide than GDP to the state of well-being in a poor country?’ Frances Stewart of Oxford University and Vikram Nehru from the World Bank East Asia team suggested infant mortality rates (too complicated and unreliable for high frequency collection), or self-reported life satisfaction (‘are you happy?’). Others suggested physical security (‘do you feel safe?)’ or access to services such as healthcare. Any other candidates? Frances reckons that it might be worth some NGOs getting together and piloting these – if we’d had them in place as the global crisis spread to the poorest countries, what would they have shown? Worth thinking about….. The conference is being webcast Wednesday and Thursday here]]>

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3 Responses to “How could we measure well-being in a crisis? Some thoughts from Korea”
  1. GCAntunes

    I agree with this post. We should measure indicators like human security, safety, health, and education perhaps instead of in addition to GDP. (material well-being is measure by income and GDP, yes?) In fact GDP does not measure self reported life satisfaction but, the way in which this is reported is more important than what is measured. If the West goes about measuring safety the way it measures GDP, for instance, then it’s an imposition of a Western ideal on the rest of the world. However, if the West is interested in measuring an indicator that can give consistent results over time, then that question should be posed in more democratic terms. For instance, consider the arguments made by the Nobel prize winner, Amartya Sen. Some the the elements of well-being he offers should be measured, like a person’s ability to subsist instead of someone’s actual income. There are other indicators there too but, I agree that measuring GDP alone is an excellent or gives a real image of a nation’s well-being.

  2. Christine Zarzicki

    I always find it interesting to see how different organizations measure development, growth and/or sustainability. I think the establishment of the UN Human Development Index (and its respective indicators) was the most substantial advancement made in this field of study. However, I still believe that there is something missing: the indicators that measure happiness and distress, anxiety and hope.
    Measuring GDP does not give statisticians or political scientists an adequate representation of the development and security of a peasant farmer living off his land. It also does not represent the “success” of a woman who produces pottery and barters her products to support her family.
    There are many societies in which individuals and their communities “own” nothing but have everything. Material items and formal currency are irrelevant in their daily lives as are “per capita income” and GDP.
    The creation of the UNHD indicators such as “access to safe drinking water” and “literacy rates” give researchers a much better impression of the living standards of select nations. However I still think that they are missing the big picture. While I understand that there is a need to gauge development (for purposes of aid distribution and intervention) it seems that the current criteria for “success” is biased toward Western standards and thus doesn’t present us with the proper solutions.
    Basically, because of our skewed perception of happiness and security, the whole world must follow in our material footsteps. I think the at the end of the day, the peasant farmer in Southeast Asia may be much happier than the thousands of white collar workers in the United States that are the definition of “success”

  3. @Christine
    “I think the at the end of the day, the peasant farmer in Southeast Asia may be much happier than the thousands of white collar workers in the United States that are the definition of ‘success’”
    Exactly! As what the cartoon above mentioned, “Money can’t buy happiness”. Most of the time, those wealthy white collar workers are not contented with their lives. Despite their success, they still feel empty. Surprisingly, some even commit suicide.