Richard Eckersley. The mismeasure of progress: Is the West really the best?

Apr 22, 2016

Western liberal democracies dominate the top rankings of progress indices. But are they the best models of development when their quality of life is, arguably, declining and unsustainable.

The measures of human progress and development that we employ matter. Good measures are a prerequisite for good governance because they are how we judge its success. They also influence how we evaluate our own lives because they affect our values, perceptions and goals. Measures both reflect and reinforce what we understand development to be: if we believe the wrong thing, we will measure the wrong thing, and if we measure the wrong thing, we will not do the right thing.

Scientific and political interest in indicators of progress and development has surged in the past two decades. The central concern has been the adequacy of (per capita) Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the dominant measure of a nation’s performance, relative to other countries and the past. The result has been the development of new indicator sets or composite indices that include a wide range of measures – social, economic and environmental.

Subjective wellbeing (commonly measured as self-reported life satisfaction or happiness) has attracted particular enthusiasm, with many researchers advocating its use as a stand-alone measure or a component of indicator sets and indices. Life satisfaction and happiness are believed to capture important subjective elements of wellbeing that other, objective indicators do not. A 2014 paper states that ‘there appears to be an emerging consensus in the policy community that subjective wellbeing ought to be the key criterion of policy success’.

The idea behind this work is that better indicators of the progress of nations will lead to better choices, especially in public policy, and so to higher quality of life and wellbeing for their citizens. The United Nations Development Programme says development is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests; it is about expanding the choices people have to lead lives they value. Fundamental to this goal is building human capabilities: to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living, and to be able to participate in the life of the community. ‘Philosophers, economists and political leaders have long emphasised human wellbeing as the purpose, the end, of development,’ it says.

Generally speaking, indicators place Western liberal democracies at the leading edge of progress, and present them as models of development for less developed nations. Typically, with indices such as the Human Development Index , the Social Progress Index and the Legatum Prosperity Index, Western nations occupy most of the top 20 places, with higher- income Asian nations filling most of the rest. Only when environmental impacts are given significant weight, as in the Happy Planet Index and the Sustainable Society Index, does this ranking change substantially.

Conceptually, the dominant indicators of progress, including GDP, subjective wellbeing and the newer composite indices, equate progress with modernisation. The United Nations Development Programme notes that past decades have seen substantial progress in many aspects of human development. Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services, it says; they also have more power to select leaders, influence public decisions and share knowledge. Thus, indicators focus on those qualities that characterise modernisation and which we celebrate as success or improvement, such as material wealth, high life expectancy, education, democratic governance, and individual freedom.

However valuable these gains are, they do not represent the sum total of what constitutes optimal wellbeing and quality of life. Nor do they integrate or reconcile adequately the requirements of sustainability. Modernisation’s benefits are counted, but its costs to wellbeing are underestimated and downplayed. At best, the qualities being measured under orthodox approaches may be desirable and even necessary, but are not sufficient. At worst, the measures are promoting a lower quality of life and leading us to towards an uncertain and problematic future.

Put another way, the dominant model of progress and development reflects one particular worldview: modernity. Modernisation is a pervasive, complex, multidimensional process that characterises our era. It includes: industrialisation, globalisation, urbanisation, democratisation, scientific and technological advance, capitalism, secularism, rationalism, individualism and consumerism. Many of these features are part of the processes of cultural Westernisation and material progress (measured as economic growth).

Recent advances in thinking have dispelled the idea that per capita GDP is an accurate or adequate measure of progress (although GDP growth remains firmly entrenched as a political priority), and broadened the measures accordingly. For example, the Genuine Progress Indicator, which adjusts the personal consumption component of GDP for a range of factors that GDP ignores or treats inappropriately, tracks GDP from 1950 to the 1970s, then diverges as social and environmental costs increase. However, the alternative indices have not yet gone far enough in allowing, even encouraging, the scrutiny and critical evaluation of modernity itself.

To the extent that new concepts of development permit more diverse, or more broadly based, forms of development, they still do not capture the depths and complexities of being human and human wellbeing. A fuller accounting demands wholly new models of progress and development. For all the new interest and effort, the work remains constrained by arbitrary disciplinary boundaries; it still falls short of explaining and resolving the inconsistencies and ambiguities that emerge from research, especially when evidence from other scientific disciplines and fields outside indicators research is taken into account. We may be making progress in measuring progress, but we still have a long way to go.

A critical flaw in equating progress with modernisation is an insufficient acknowledgement of the ‘psychosocial dynamics’ of human societies: the complex interactions and relationships between the subjective and objective worlds that determine qualities such as identity, belonging, purpose and meaning in life, which are so crucial to our wellbeing. Existing measures reflect or capture some aspects of these dynamics, but not enough. This is as true of subjective-wellbeing indicators as it is of other measures.

Measuring life satisfaction or happiness does not fundamentally alter the dominant view of progress. For example, the correlation between the Human Development Index and the World Happiness Report’s scores is a high 0.77. On the face of it, such associations seem persuasive, but like other indicators, subjective-wellbeing indicators fail to capture fully the psychosocial dynamics of our ways of living. Aspects of subjective wellbeing that remain unresolved or contested in the research literature include: adaptation and homeostatic control, which buffer subjective wellbeing against external circumstances and help to maintain a relatively stable and positive life evaluation; the influence of personal situations compared to social conditions; the ambiguous role of individual freedom in wellbeing; and a cultural bias towards Western societies.

There are several streams of evidence that expose the limitations of subjective wellbeing, and cast doubt on how we currently conceptualise and measure progress and development. These are: research using wider or more diverse measures of personal health and wellbeing; what people think, not about their own lives, but about the overall quality of life and society as a whole; and people’s views of the future of society and humanity. For example:

  • The great majority of adolescents and young adults in the developed world say they are happy, healthy and satisfied with their lives, and their life expectancy continues to rise. Yet other research indicates their wellbeing has declined because of increased rates of chronic physical and mental illness. A 2010 US study by Jean Twenge and her colleagues compared the results of a widely used psychological test over a period of 70 years, and found a steady decline in the mental health of college students: compared to 1938, five times as many college students in 2007 scored high enough on the test to indicate psychological problems.
  • Australia ranks high in progress indices, including life satisfaction, yet in a 2015 survey, conducted by Omnipoll on my behalf, when asked about quality of life in Australia, taking into account social, economic and environmental conditions and trends, only 16 per cent of Australians thought life was getting better; 35 per cent thought it was staying about the same; and 49 per cent thought it was getting worse.
  • In a 2015 study of ‘societal unease’, Netherlands researcher Eefje Steenvoorden argues that it is ‘a latent concern among citizens in contemporary western countries about the precarious state of society’. This concern arises from the ‘perceived unmanageable deterioration’ of five fundamental aspects of society: distrust in human capability (to make improvements and overcome problems), loss of ideology, decline of political power, decline of community, and socioeconomic vulnerability. Societal unease is only weakly related to happiness, proving, the author says, that personal happiness is clearly distinct from societal unease, and that ‘high levels of private contentment are not to be mistaken for public contentment’.
  • A recent study that I co-authored with Melanie Randle at the University of Wollongong, investigated the perceived probability of threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Overall, across the four countries, 54 per cent of people rated the risk of ‘our way of life ending’ within the next 100 years at 50 per cent or greater, while 24 per cent rated the risk of ‘humans being wiped out’ at 50 per cent or greater. Three-quarters (78 per cent) agreed ‘we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world’.

These examples all illustrate the importance of the psychosocial dynamics of progress. Unless we pay more attention to them, we will continue to miss too much of what matters, limiting our options and prospects. We will not be able to devise and implement solutions that match the scale of the problems we face.

At the deepest level, we need to change the myths, beliefs and values by which we define ourselves, our lives, and our goals. The necessary transformation can be compared to that in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment: from the medieval mind, dominated by religion and the afterlife, to the modern mind, focused on material life here on earth. Research into human development and progress needs to allow, even encourage, the conceptual space for a cultural transformation as profound as that which gave rise to modernity in the first place.

Richard Eckersley is a director of Australia21, a public-interest, strategic research company. This article draws on a longer paper published this month in the leading international development journal, Oxford Development Studies. For those with subscription access, it is available at: An author version is available at:


Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!