Right signals

Indicators of sustainable development provide a solid basis for decision-making

By Alex Macgillivray
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- HOW far can "indicators" take us in evolving practical approaches to achieving that Holy Grail, sustainability? Indicators are rapidly becoming the most widely discussed mechanism for monitoring the progress -- if any -- towards sustainable development. They have the potential to quantify, simplify and communicate complex situations in the economy.

The need for "new indicators" is fully recognised by all social scientists today. The search for suitable indicators of sustainability has spawned a mass of activity worldwide. Indeed, 1994 has seen a series of workshops, meetings and conferences around the globe on indicators. People who have the time, money, connections and inclination have attended them.

A major international seminar organised by the New Economic Foundation, a London-based policy think-tank, was held in London on October 13 and 14, 1994. Eighty participants from academia, research institutions, business, grassroots NGOs and the World Bank, discussed the social, economic and environmental indicators of sustainable development.

Indicators of sustainable development provide a solid basis for decision-making at all levels and contribute to the self-regulating sustainability of integrated environment and development systems. But critical questions are yet to be adequately addressed: Who has the right or responsibility to select indicators? Is an integrated approach a myth or a practical possibility? For the South in particular, are there any innovative ways to cope with the" data gap"? The participants dwelt on these issues during the seminar and the interactions were highly productive. The latest technical developments in organisations like the United Nations Development Programme, World Bank, World Resource Institute and EUROSTAT, were evaluated by examining practical indicator activities in local communities across the world.

Indicators have always been used and abused. The prospects of putting indicators to work in the sustainable development debate, and the range of uses that they can realistically be put to, will be limited by how well they communicate with their intended audience. There is clearly a role for crude, optimally inaccurate indicators and indices, but the recent ferocious debate on the United Nation's human development index illustrates just how important it is to define the values and purposes behind such initiatives, and to recognise the audience for which they are intended.

Traditional economic indicators such as the Gross National Product (GNP) have been vehemently opposed. Clifford Cobb, who devised the widely applauded index of "Sustainable Economic Welfare as an Alternative", termed the GNP a "warfare measure" rather than a "welfare measure" that originated at the level of national power in the western industrial nations during the Second World War. Politicians in all countries are now hamstrung by the need to show a steady growth in this "macho" indicator, even if this means sacrificing real welfare. But there are several innovative activities underway in different countries to counteract the malign influence of GNP on sustainable development.

The key*** to doing this is the "right to choose": ensuring an appropriate balance between technical experts and local communities in sharing rights and responsibilities, for selecting and using relevant sustainable development indicators. This balance depends not just on the audience, but on the type of indicator (index or basket***; physical or economic), the level at which it operates (local, national, international) and the focus (environmental, social, economic).

A judicious balance between a meaningful quantification and a resonant simplification enables indicators to communicate. The act of communication obviously presupposes an audience, and suggests a 2-way process. Yet, the intended audience and the nature of the communication process, all too often tend to be overlooked when technical experts develop indicators. This is the case particularly where such indicators are used for international comparisons.

In many situations, there are serious data gaps - for countries which do not have substantial statistical resources; for groups who cannot get access to existing data; and for those who simply do not believe in statistics.

The participants tried to imagine a world in which people actually made decisions based on new indicators. What would be its distinctive features, would it be desirable, and if so, how can we progress towards it?*** The seminar concluded on the next steps needed to influence decision-making at an international level.

---Alex MacGillivray is associated with the New Economics Foundation, London.

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