A New Measure of Development: Well-being
Even economists aren't satisfied with gross domestic product and incomes anymore. Now we also want to know how happy people are and how much they feel they can realize their potential.
Daniel Altman is Big Think's Chief Economist and an adjunct faculty member at New York University's Stern School of Business. Daniel wrote economic commentary for The Economist, The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune before founding North Yard Economics, a non-profit consulting firm serving developing countries, in 2008. In between, he served as an economic advisor in the British government and wrote four books, most recently Outrageous Fortunes: The Twelve Surprising Trends That Will Reshape the Global Economy.
What's the best measure of progress in the global economy? Even economists aren't satisfied with gross domestic product and incomes anymore. Now we also want to know how happy people are and how much they feel they can realize their potential. These are the right goals for economic policy, but pursuing them raises some difficult questions. How can we compare one person's well-being to another's? Can we put a dollar value on well-being, so we know how much to spend on it?
For the past couple of decades, people working in health care have been trying to answer these questions. Health care is costly, and getting the most bang for the buck means making tradeoffs between people's well-being. Now, the same methodology is being applied to another field where funding is scarce: aid for global development. At the Overseas Development Institute in London, Claire Melamed and her colleagues are at the forefront of this exciting and essential new approach. They answered a few of my questions this week:
Econ201: Why is it important to measure people's well-being rather than their life expectancies, incomes, etc?
ODI: This project is less about measuring well-being directly than about trying to understand how much different components of well-being (income, health, etc.) contribute to people's own sense of how their lives are. So we are not proposing a move away from objective measures entirely, but are suggesting that as an input into policy and resource allocation decisions it would be useful to know more about how people value the different components of what is sometimes called 'well-being'.
Econ201: Why do we need a measure of well-being that is standard across many groups of people?
ODI: Because policy decisions are made with reference to different groups - so that a decision to allocate resources for an intervention that affects one group will have an impact on the resources available to spend on other groups. A common measure would help people making these decisions to work out how overall needs differ between groups and what they are getting from their spend in different areas.
We are also trying to think about how different groups of people value different things. It would be perfectly possible that the result is that the instrument we end up with has to be modified for different country contexts for example. What we are proposing is a standard instrument to allocate resources but the weights that each component are assigned in the instrument could vary across groups of people. This also is the case in health; the EQ-5D for instance is evaluated in different countries and groups of people to obtain different sets of weights for each of the health dimensions.
Econ201: Health is a fairly specific area, so the questions you can ask to compute measures like quality-adjusted life years and the like are somewhat limited. Well-being is much broader, with many potential contributors. How will you constrain the methodology to make it manageable?
ODI: This was the subject of much discussion at a recent workshop with health economists and development experts to discuss this methodology. The health people felt that what they were trying to measure was also pretty broad, so in some ways the expansion was less than we had perhaps thought. The key thing to keep in mind is what is relevant for public policy interventions and what is measurable in a fairly consistent way. We could, as a first step, limit the dimensions of well-being to those which are likely to be the subject of policy or spending interventions - so, for example, religious belief, which we know is important to well-being, could be excluded. This will be one of the areas we explore in the pilot project.
Econ201: Why do you think 'deprived' people would have different contributors to well-being than wealthier people? Has income been shown to change the health metrics you're using as models? Have other factors?
ODI: This is very much an open and debated question, and I am not at all sure that they would have systematically different preferences - again, this is a question for the pilot project. We are also very interested in finding out if poor people have preferences which are different to government officials or aid workers - which would be quite illuminating for thinking about the politics of aid and development interventions.
Econ201: To what degree are you looking into evaluation of well-being over time? In the aid community, should the relative values of well-being today and well-being in the future depend on the donor's preferences or the beneficiaries' preferences?
ODI: One of things this can help us explore is how much donor and beneficiary preferences differ and in what ways. A pilot project could only give us a snapshot, but if it is successful it would be interesting to keep updating the data to review any changes (as they do in the health sector).
Econ201: Could the tools that you are creating for global development eventually complement or replace existing metrics for evaluating social and economic policy?
ODI: Complement yes, I very much hope so! Replace - not entirely, as I think there is information that won't be captured by this project which is still important.
You can follow Claire on Twitter at @clairemelamed to read about the progress of her project.
Image Credit: Atakan Sevgi/Flickr
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.