Report from OECD: What Winning Looks Like

Here’s a letter I sent out to my friends in the Balaton Group from New Delhi, India, where I was recently attending an OECD World Forum and moderating a panel on sustainability. I never thought attending a meeting on national statistics could make me so happy. Alan

Dear friends, I am reporting to you now from the floor of the OECD World Forum on “Measuring Well-Being for Development and Policy Making.” Around me is a collection of chief national statisticians, senior economists, OECD officials, and assorted political and civil society actors from around the world.

My purpose in writing to you is to communicate a short message: we won.

I do not mean, of course, that we have “won” the “fight” for a sustainable future. Far from it. What I mean by this is something very narrow and specific, and concerns the fight to convince policy-makers that the GDP should not be the central measure of progress. This is a fight that many people have been involved with for many years, going back to the late 1980s.

Why do I say “we won”? Because at this conference are many people whose job is to prepare the national and global statistics that inform those policy-makers, as well as a number of actual policy-makers. The consensus among those attending this Forum is clear: these new measures of overall quality of life as well as subjective wellbeing (“Gross National Happiness” and its many imitations, under many names, now in dozens of countries) have become fully mainstream — and they might even challenge GDP for supremacy in the coming years. Programs to develop and launch and use these new indicators in policy-making are now happening in dozens of countries, and they are clearly on the rise. The commitments are serious and appear to be long-term. Virtually everyone at this event, from the head of the OECD to national statisticians, seems to agree that GDP is no longer adequate, and in fact can be dangerously misleading.

Of course, there are many caveats. The fascination with growth and the GDP is hardly going away, and many factors — not least the deep economic crisis here in Europe — could eventually slow the momentum of this “new mainstream”. But what is interesting, indeed rather amazing to me, is that the momentum around the new measures continues to grow, at these high levels of government and international policy making, *despite* the financial crisis. (And in some cases, *because of* the financial crisis, which has exposed the problems in many measurement systems, not just the GDP).

In political terms, the OECD is rather more progressive than some other international organizations; it is certainly more progressive than the WTO, for example. So a consensus within the OECD does not mean “everyone” in political power, by any means. But, especially as compared to the small think-tanks and academic centers that have championed these ideas, the OECD is unquestionably at the heart of the policy world, and a good indicator of “mainstream-ness”. Australia, France, China, Mexico, several African countries, Indian states, and dozens more … This is critical mass.

There’s another important factor that convinces me that we have won. Many of these national statisticians are saying — from the podium as well as in private conversations — that they see the future of their profession moving this way, and they want to be on the train. “We’re a conservative bunch,” one of them said to me, “and that adds to our credibility. But now we see that these new measurements have reached a point where if we don’t get on that train, we might become less relevant.” And they want to be more relevant, not less. Expanding the kinds of measures that reflect national progress is actually good for their careers, good for their budgets, and good for their overall political standing. What’s more, it makes good sense to them now.

So, especially if you are someone who remembers those old indicator projects and meetings and reports from the early 1990s and afterward … take a moment and mentally celebrate. We started pushing this rock up the hill a long time ago (taking over from those who pushed before us) … and more and more people joined in … and now it is over the hump, and appears to be rolling on its own steam.

This is what winning looks like.

Warm best from India,
Alan