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Robert Kennedy, in May 1968, with characteristically brilliant oratory, pinpointed the deplorable failure of governments to measure their people’s quality of life.
The traditional statistic – per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – ''does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play; it does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials . . . it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.'' Listen to the speech onYouTube, you will be captivated.
From then on for two generations, governments are struggling to tackle Kennedy's wake-up call. Frustrated with the shortfalls of GDP as an indicator of wellbeing, the world’s statisticians are attempting to find alternative methods to measure quality of people's lives. But it’s not a moment too soon: democracy is under challenge and trust levels in politicians are worryingly low.
The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, led by renowned American economist Joseph Stiglitz, concluded that people lacked confidence in government statistics, and that for many purposes there were better economic statistics for measuring wellbeing than a measure of production: levels of real household income, for example, or the extent of income inequality.
Not surprisingly, there is a renewed sense of urgency among government statisticians. In May 2010 the OECD launched the Better Life Index, which seeks to respond to the commission's challenge, with Australia ranks highly on the index with only Canada scoring better. The UN Development Program recently issued its 2011 Human Development Report. It creates a composite index by measuring three dimensions – health, education and living standards. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been on the job since 2002. Its most recent Measures of Australia's Progress (MAP), for 2010, has just been released.
It's a good start but the truth is that the attempt to measure the quality of life over time and between nations is still in its infancy. The mission is full of thorny questions - is it appropriate to trade off economic and environmental indicators? Should we balance statistics of current wellbeing (both economic and societal) with measures that might indicate future sustainability (such as levels of indebtedness or environmental degradation)?
Participatory citizenship, democratic engagement, protection from the arbitrary exercise of executive power and freedom of speech are life aspects for which people are willing to risk their lives.
The great danger is the national statistics end up measuring what it is easiest and comforting to measure rather than that which is essential.
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Reference: The Age, Measuring wellbeing is still in the too-hard basket