Kenny McBride - The social decathlon
For many years, GDP has been the one simple number that could clearly gauge one country’s economic performance over time and in comparison to other countries. As the Olympics draws closer though, we could perhaps make a comparison between this kind of political economics and elite athletics. Usain Bolt is probably the greatest sprinter of his generation and perhaps the greatest of all time. Over 100 metres, he can run faster than anyone else in the world. But does that make him the greatest athlete in the world?
Could he perform at the same high level if asked to run longer distances or compete in field events? Probably not. He is a specialist, and if that’s what suits him then good luck to him. For me, though, the greatest athletes on display this summer will be the heptathletes and decathletes – the people who compete at a high level across a disparate range of disciplines. The training is just as intense as for any individual element, but the athlete involved must learn to split his or her time and energy the right way to ensure peak performance in as many areas as possible if they hope to achieve a medal.
So it should be for countries. Creating a strong, healthy, vibrant nation is a decathlon, not a sprint. A strong economy is important, but so are strong communities, safe streets, green spaces and happy families, just as a good sprint is important to a decathlete, but no more than a good high jump, an impressive javelin throw or a fast 1500m. And in the same way as Usain Bolt would likely sweep the board over the short distances but slip out of contention on the field events in the multi-discipline event, so a society that focuses on nothing but GDP will ultimately lose the race to become a great nation because it will have ignored the other things that really matter.
Today Oxfam will launch the Oxfam Humankind Index, a new way of measuring Scotland’s prosperity. Unlike other measures of national progress, particularly GDP, this is not a top-down measure of something quite abstract. The Oxfam Humankind Index was constructed by actually asking people what was important in their lives then calculating Scotland’s performance in each of these fields according to the best statistics available.
Many of the results will be unsurprising to people who asks themselves the same question. Decent housing, security, a decent local environment and good relationships with family and friends are all much more important to people than relentless economic growth. Indeed, out of the 18 different factors that make up the Oxfam Humankind Index, money is not even mentioned until about halfway down the list. Even then, people care more about just having enough money to pay for the essentials and knowing that their income is secure than about having ever-greater wealth.
From there, the statistical masterminds of the Fraser of Allander Institute looked for data that would help us understand how Scotland was performing in each of these areas. Some great work was done and the results of the Oxfam Humankind Index can certainly be considered robust, but there are clearly gaps in the data. The government simply has no information about some of the things that matter most in people’s lives. Even measures of something as important as the country’s mental and physical health are not as authoritative as they could be and there are no real measures of how well we relate to family and friends or how strong our communities are. This is the equivalent of training for the high jump without even being able to measure where the bar is. What’s more, it’s quite possible that by relentlessly pursuing the sprint to GDP growth, the high jump of community spirit is being neglected altogether to the detriment of our overall success.
If a good sprinter wants to become a top decathlete, he talks to his coach and together they set new training priorities to achieve these new goals. If a society with a decent economy wants to become a better nation all-round, it has to look at what the real priorities of its people are and find new ways to address those. The Oxfam Humankind Index provides us with a first glimpse of how our performance in this great social decathlon is shaping up. The next step is to talk to the people who set our national priorities and decide how best to pursue our new goals. Perhaps that could be our 2012 legacy.
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