Towards a Complete Reset? Purpose and what we measure…

For a couple of decades I have been thinking about what we measure and why we measure it in various development programmes. The choices we make about what we measure shape how the system develops over time and if we make the wrong choices the original purpose of the system can get lost.

In economic development, measures are based on productivity, a measure usually derived from Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product.  Anything likely to increase the productivity of the economy is deemed to be a ‘good’ thing and pursued wholeheartedly.

This has led to a long term and persistent bias towards the pursuit of productivity gains – rather than to investing in establishing a context, a society, from which productivity will emerge. We have become obsessed with the golden egg (which is actually pretty rotten in terms of climate and inequality) and not cared for the goose.

Consider this from Bobby Kennedy from over 50 years ago:

‘Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.’

Robert F. Kennedy Address, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, March 18, 1968

Seems pretty close to the mark even 50 years later.

  • Why did this voice of reason not prevail?
  • Could it prevail now?
  • Should it?

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