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

October 28, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

I am currently in Korea’s second city, Busan, attending a big 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

October 28, 2009
Duncan Green