Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Wellbeing: Not just a luxury for the rich

There are many questions that are often raised by sceptics about the merits of measuring progress, and many of those questions are sometimes difficult to answer convincingly.
Last week I touched on one question I hear often, "So what?... what is the policy relevance of measuring happiness".

This week I turn to another: "This is all well and good for a developed country, but we have more pressing concerns in the South"

This was the focus of Johannes's post "Progress for All" here on this blog on 21 January. So let me add my support to what he said because I don't think we can say this enough at the moment.

Two years ago this week I was in Addis Ababa (or Addis Abeba if you wish) at a big African statistics conference. I was talking to a bunch of Africa's most senior statisticians about the Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies, and trying to encourage Africa to take part. I gave my usual talk and I could tell that although the audience was mostly still awake, their minds were elsewhere and they remained unconvinced about what I was saying. Luckily, I could pass the microphone to a colleague. It was her first time in Africa, her first time out of Europe in fact, and she had been working on measuring progress for all of 2 days. But her fresh enthusiasm for the ideas we were talking about, and for Africa, were evident and the audience took notice.

She explained that she had not known what to expect from her first visit to Africa, and that she had been struck by the friendliness of people, and their happiness in the face of obvious adversity. The smiling streets of Addis were all very different from the frozen faces on the Paris Metro (and yes, line 13 remains awful in case you were wondering ... but I can now cope because I have bought my ticket to Costa Rica!). "Wouldn't it be a pity" she said "if this spirit was lost in the quest for development?".

I could see the symbolic lightbulbs shining over the collective statisticians. All of a sudden they became engaged, and the conversation started to flow among them, while I listened (and also made a mental note of stealing this particular script and using it myself if I was ever invited back).

Yes, Africa has some terrible hardships to battle. And yes, the people aspire to western levels of income, life expectancy and so on. But there are also some aspects of African life that we, in the 'developed' west often seem relatively impoverished in. Strong family ties, broader notions of social capital and so on. Perhaps these things are a hindrance to "development", perhaps they can be an asset. I really don't know. But it would be a great pity if one morning in 10 or 20 years hence, the people of Addis wake up to find they have a Starbucks on every corner, and a plasma TV in every house, but have unwittingly lost some of the richness of being African, because they had not realised they were losing it.

We manage what we measure, so it is important that people in all countries, rich and poor, measure the things that matter. Perhaps the people of a developing country will decide that they are willing to care a little less about their extended family in exchange for a higher GDP per capita. Perhaps they won't. But what is certain is that they may not even know there is a choice to be made until it is too late, unless they have the evidence in front of them. Too often, it seems to me, the conversation about 'development' spends rather too much time on getting the policies right, without asking the more fundamental question "what does development mean?". I suspect I am not alone in thinking that the answer is rather more complicated than " becoming more like us Westerners". At least I hope I am not alone in thinking that.

So no, measuring progress is not a luxury. Its a necessity, and it is more important than anywhere than in countries that are changing, or likely to change, rapidly.


Monday, 25 January 2010

Progress, where to start?

Hello all,

So, we have done week one on the Prog Blog. We have had some nice feedback and have found that we really enjoy it. So, if it's ok with you all, we think we will continue!

Jon, Johannes and Trevor have already brought to light some of the most interesting aspects of progress in my view. Johannes emphasized the need to broaden the scope of progress work to developing countries. Jon brings all this back home to our backyards and refers to how decisions about wellbeing at the policy level will affect citizens directly. Trevor is helping us through all of this by highlighting some of the recent innovations that the OECD and partners have come up with to collect data on progress and visualize it.

I thought maybe I should now highlight a few key documents that have helped me through in my understanding what measuring progress is all about and some good places to start if you are new to this.

  • October 1995 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, "If the GDP is up, why is America down - why we need new measures of progress, why we do not have them and how they would change the social and political landscape". A very good overview of the issues and debates in measuring progress.
  • A Framework to Measure the Progress of Societies - Even though there are no standards for measuring progress, this is a good shot at coming up with some dimensions of progress and a jumping off point for debate. http://www.wikiprogress.org/index.php/Taxonomy
  • A Mike Salvaris presentation from 2009 OECD World Forum "Why healthy democracy is part of true progress and how we should measure it" http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/55/58/44118229.pdf. He has a way with a presentation! He puts a country's national wellbeing along with other progress dimensions. There are also several interesting links here for further reading as well as some inspiring quotations to put you in the right frame of mind.
  • The Istanbul Declaration from the 2007 World Forum - several parties affirmed in a declaration their commitment to measuring and fostering the progress of societies in all dimensions, with the ultimate goal of improving policy making, democracy and citizens’ wellbeing.

You can also go to www.wikiprogress.org in the community portal where Vanessa is pulling together recent press on the topic including the Global Project's newsletters and to the calendar on the homepage where Lucy has found and uploaded 27 new conferences where progress is on the agenda.

As always, wikiprogress is a community effort so if you would like to contribute by adding/editing a page or two (or 10!) you are certainly welcome.

We look forward to your comments on this and all of our posts.

Have a nice week.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Trevs Prog Blog Tech Blog

Hello Progress People,

This is Trevor here opening up the wikiprogress technical blog. I can already hear you thinking ‘hmmmm – a blog about technical aspects of a wiki about progress – how absolutely thrilling. I think a large IT manual must have been dropped on this poor fellows head from a great height. Let’s see what’s on the other channel……’ . But hang on a few moments before you disappear off to facebook or twitter or whatever because there have some been some very exciting and innovative developments in the last few months that are all coming together on the wikiprogress site as I type these very words.

So here is the big news progress people: we have made it possible for anybody with facts about progress they want to share and a story to tell to load their own data into our very own progress database and to combine it with a stunning visual graphics interface which in our humble opinion add a whole new dimension to the traditional wiki. I might even modestly say: ‘now that is what I call progress’.

Our first version of the data uploader will allow you or anyone else with data about progress to shift it from your laptop up into the wikiprogress.stat data warehouse which will launch about a week . (the loader is still being tested but if you would like your data to show in wikiprogress.stat, please contact info@wikiprogress.org and we will upload it for you). Once your data is loaded it can be shown along with your article like this so you have the facts to back up your text. We have some great datasets on deck to be loaded and we look forward to more of the progress community’s involvement so we can start to fill wikiprogress.stat. The peoples database - more progress !

And now it starts to get even better. If you have a story to tell about your data (say you want to show how country A has become happier over time with an increase in the consumption of chocolate but the reverse has happened in country B) then you will be able to use our eXplorer visualisation tool (developed by our very good friends at NCVA) to show this in an animated way using maps and bubble charts. Compelling isn’t even in it. It’s difficult to describe such a magical tool and a picture does tell a thousand words so take a look at this short video clip from the BBC rather than just take my word for it: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8130554.stm

The link between the data and the explorer is currently in beta but watch this space for new developments!

Onwards and upwards.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Progress For All?

This is a blog about progress. Progress matters, of course, but does it really matter for the poor and destitute of this world? Talking about absolute and relative well-being, happiness and other nice things you may want to attribute to “progress” - is this really relevant for the poor of this world? If you have enough to drink, eat, a 35 hour work week, 8 weeks paid vacation, then it might be perfectly interesting to ask yourself how you feel and other such questions.

Take the Easterlin-Paradox: it describes the phenomenon that in modern societies a strong positive correlation between income and happiness breaks away. In countries like the US, France or Germany an increase in per capita income does not necessarily translate into more happiness or perceived well-being for its citizens. If you live in France and you see that your neighbour has just bought a new Porsche, spends his vacations in fancy places, has the newest iPhone and does not buy vegetables at Picard like you, but instead spends money on “Macaron” sweets at Laduree, your recent salary increase might taste sour. In the words of the academics: your objective measurable well-being might have increased, but the marginal return of this additional increase might even be negative.

In poor countries this situation is different. Talking about “progress” in countries where people have difficulties achieving basic social and economic needs, such as reducing absolute poverty, and improving health, nutrition, education and gender equality seems at bit absurd, doesn’t it? Why should you care about the wealth situation of your neighbour if you are living in a slum of Calcutta with no access to electricity, pumped water and any basic infrastructure? Or, after an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude? Or, after a crippling civil war?

These are tricky, but important questions the progress community needs to address. My take is rather clear: Poor people care as much as rich people what their neighbours think. From my own experiences living in Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea, I have seen an appreciation of social relations that is difficult to boil down in quantifiable terms. This includes tangible community values such as respect for the elderly, the importance of a social life and even a certain reverence for the natural world around us. Amartya Sen has coined the phrase “development as freedom”; “progress” in this sense is enabling people to fully exploit their capacities and capabilities, beyond the purely economic sphere. We need to take this more seriously when we start to embark on the post-MDG debate. Progress matters, everywhere.


Friday, 15 January 2010

On Commuting and Costa Rica: Bright Lights and Stop Lights

I'm pleased that the wikiprogress team have started this blog. Its an opportunity for us all to share some of the random thoughts that crossed our mind, and the news that crosses our in box.

So I'm supposed to blog about Progress. And when I talk about progress I'm talking about whether life ... my life, your life, the planet ... is getting better. I'm thinking about wellbeing, sustainability, quality of life, happiness, development: a myriad of terms that all take different lenses to look at whether life is getting better.

This is a big question of course and one that I wouldn't dare to try to answer comprehensively for the rest of you. In fact I am reluctant even to try to answer it for myself in any rigorous way. But this morning, when I was trying to take the Parisienne metro to work, my wellbeing was far from high. Line 13 was running slowly again - the usual state of play so far in 2010 - and there was a horrendously high density of disgruntled commuter/ square metre in the carriage. Anyway, I was reminded of a presentation that Ed Diener, noted happiness researcher (and appropriately the Josseph R Smiley Distinguished Professor of Psychology), gave at a conference the OECD organised back on 2007. Ed is one of the world's foremost researchers into subjective wellbeing (popularly referred to as happiness) and one of the crowd asked him what, even if we could measure this stuff, was the point and why would anyone care: "What's the policy relevance?". This is a common question and I suspect Ed has heard it more often than I have heard "The traffic on line 13 is running slow today because of an incident....". He replied that commuting was an interesting example. Commuting, according to the data, is one of the activities that makes people unhappy. So the dream of moving to the suburbs for a bigger house and a longer trip to work will seldom raise a commuter's levels of wellbeing. And this has implications both for the personal choices we all make, as well as for urban planners. If only we looked at the evidence more.... Go Prof Diener! I quite agree.

When I finally got out of the metro I was back on ground level and the sub-arctic temperatures. My mind turned longingly to the tropics and also to mammals (when I am not complaining about the metro or working at the OECD I am usually looking for mammals somewhere... see http://www.mammalwatching.com/ if you'd rather read about this than progress). Costa Rica has long been on the list of places to go - they have a great ecotourism scene there apparently and it also seems to be one of the best places in the world to see Sloths... now there's a mammal that has its priorities straight. Anyway, Costa Rica is back in the progress news last week because once again we are reminded that this is the happiest country in the world - see the Op Ed in the New York Times. Now the data are difficult to interpret and it isn't quite as cut and dried as this piece makes out, partly because some of the different approaches that prove the point are using the same data set so its not surprising they draw the same conclusion (there was a nice critique on the freakonomics blog). Be that as it may, its more proof that if you want to start a public debate about progress and the need to think beyond the economy then I know of no better way than to talk about happiness. The media love it, the public gets it. Yes, perhaps there are problems with the data but at least it gets us talking.

There had been more evidence to back up my point a few weeks ago, but this time the focus was a few thousand kilometres north. I spent a week in the bright lights of New York over Christmas. Now New Yorkers are the least happy people in the US, at least according to the research from Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu. I was surprised because I love NYC, but of course visiting is not the same as living there. And while I love the buzz of New York and also like the people, I can imagine that the stress of life there and the sheer amount of work that everyone seems to do might take its toll on your subjective wellbeing. Of course the New York media was full of the story, and people phoning the radio stations were often quite critical of the findings... New Yorkers are not known to be shy when it comes to expressing themselves. But like it or not, the research had an impact and it got people talking about the progress of their society.

One of the criticisms about happiness research, especially when it compares countries or regions, is that differences in language and culture can have a misleading effect on the results. The evidence is mixed on this and if, as I believe, there are cultural differences then fair enough. Our cultures are different and they have an effect on us, so those differences can be a genuine part of our subjective wellbeing. Perhaps we should try to understand the effect of culture rather than see it as a statistical problem that needs to be controlled for in a model.

Now we often describe individuals as 'a glass half empty or a glass half full' person. Perhaps we can do the same for societies. But is there a test we could apply? The first thing that sprang to my mind was how we describe traffic lights.

Traffic lights have many names. In Zambia we used to call them robots. I have no idea why, but I do remember that they were not often working, largely because some of the more entrepreneurial locals would remove the green and red glass and sell pieces of it to unwitting tourists as emeralds and rubies. The French have (on the whole I think unfair) reputation as being a bit of a miserable bunch. But why do they describe their traffic lights as 'feu rouge' (red lights). This is somewhat pessimistic and definitely a glass half empty outlook. Perhaps in Costa Rica they call them "luz verde". I'd better go to find out for myself.


Wednesday, 13 January 2010


Welcome to the Prog Blog! This is a blog that comes out of the Global Project for Measuring the Progress of Societies and the beta Wikiprogress. We are a part of a community of people interested in fresh measures of progress which include the environment and society. We would like to continue this investigation via this blog and wikiprogress.org so that we may hear from other voices that we might not have access to otherwise. Hooray internet!

We are interested in blogging about events, news, indicators, technology, subjective well being, other blogs, culture, books, equality, mammals, the odd recipe swap, the environment, pollution and whatever else we find interesting on the topic.

We hope that you will read along with us and most importantly provide your comments and feedback. We are coming from an angle that too many of today’s issues are sitting in their silos (along with their respective experts) and this blog is one of the ways we are asking for your contributions in the movement for better measures to ensure a sustainable future for our environment and society.

We are very much looking forward to blogging with you. We hope you find some of what we are writing about interesting as well as thought and action provoking.

Monday, 11 January 2010


If you have any questions about the Prog Blog, please feel free to contact me at angela.hariche@oecd.org