Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Real Story on Wellbeing: A Canadian Example

There are times in history when destabilizing world events turn into defining moments for change and innovation. We may be at the forefront of one of those defining moments.

Following the Great Depression and World War II – global events that destabilized entire nations – a consensus emerged. The world needed a good dose of peace and prosperity. Governments set out to pursue those objectives, and to determine ways of measuring progress. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) became the standard way to assess economic prosperity. Since then nations have come to rely on GDP as a primary indicator of how a country is prospering, but as robust a tool as it is, GDP only tells us about the state of the economy. It provides no understanding of the health of a population, the vibrancy of a democracy, the growing inequality within and between countries, or the quality of life for a country’s people.

Today we again find ourselves in uncertain times. The 2008 global recession and the years of economic and social turmoil that have ensued, have brought us to the point where average people are joining demonstrations around the world, occupying banking districts around the world. Their common cry: What about the rest of us? They bring into sharp relief GDP’s limitations as a measure of wellbeing. A new consensus is emerging – we want a fairer world. Again we find ourselves in need of a new way to measure how our country is faring and now we have the way to do it.

A decade ago, some of Canada’s leading thinkers answered the call to create a composite index that could do what GDP was never designed to do. The result is the launch of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW). Drawing from a deep well of data the CIW uses 64 separate headline indicators within eight interconnected domains central to the lives of Canadians: Community Vitality, Democratic Engagement, Education, Environment, Healthy Populations, Leisure and Culture, Living Standards, and Time Use. We can now use these indicators to monitor each domain over time, starting with the base year of 1994.

Since 1994, we now know Canada’s wellbeing has seen an overall improvement of 11 per cent, which pales in comparison to the 31 per cent growth in the country’s GDP over the same time frame. The CIW shows us what GDP cannot, it shows us what the average citizen has understood intuitively: Canadians are not reaping all of the benefits of economic growth. Quality of life has actually gone down in areas such as the environment, leisure and culture, and time use, with only modest gains in health. And even in areas where growth has been strong, research shows that it was the top 20% of Canadians that received the lion’s share of rising income and wealth during the boom years, while the gap down to the bottom 20% grew even larger. That’s the Canadian reality.

Unlike GDP, designed only to measure the output of countries goods and services, the CIW allows us to dig deeper, providing a more complete picture of which aspects of wellbeing improved and which got worse. By providing an accurate snapshot of how the country is faring over time, the CIW gives Canadian governments the tools needed to better understand the impact of their policy and program decisions, and gives citizens, what they need to hold governments accountable – to ensure quality of life grows along with GDP.

We find ourselves in uncertain times. Governments around the world face push back from citizens who say they’re no longer willing to bear the brunt of actions and decisions they perceive to be taken by the elite few. Fortunately we have choices about how we want the future to look. It is hoped that the CIW will help advance the cause to find better ways to measure societal progress that respond to the global call for greater fairness.

By: The Honourable Roy Romanow, Chair of the Advisory Board, and The Honourable Monique Bégin, Deputy Chair, of the Advisory Board for Wikiprogress Correspondents, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing.

For complete Canadian Index of Wellbeing findings or enjoy our short video and infographic:

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