Moving Beyond GDP in Measuring Social Progress

Editor’s Note: This blog previews the concepts discussed in a forthcoming book by Oxford University Press, “

Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights

,” written by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Terra Lawson-Remer, and Susan Randolph.

What is the yardstick by which the progress of countries and people ought to be measured and judged? The standard metric of societies’ performance is per capita income—an easy shorthand, but one which conflates economic production and consumption with human well-being.

As Aristotle wrote in the fourth century B.C.: “wealth is not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”

What is that something else? What ultimately matters to people’s well-being?

In 2008, the French presidency commissioned a report from leading social scientists to explore the limitations of current economic and social measures and to propose some possible alternatives. The 2009 report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress found a pressing need for better measures of economic performance in a complex economy. Specifically, the report called for approaches that take into account distribution and inequality, health, education, work, political voice and governance, social connections and relationships, environmental sustainability, and insecurity. But missing from the commission’s recommendations was an explicit normative framework for selecting the outcomes most important for measuring human progress. This is a political question, about valued ends and priorities.

A Consensus on Global Norms

In 1948 the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), reflecting the consensus norms of the global community in the wake of the horror of the Holocaust and the decimation of World War II. The UDHR has since been augmented by many more specific international human rights treaties and instruments, giving greater content to these broad human rights principles.

The rights articulated through the various instruments of international human rights law offer an important yardstick for measuring human progress—if by progress we mean not simply rising material production and consumption, but improving human well-being and the real freedoms that people enjoy.

Human rights legal instruments articulate a list of essential rights that give substantive meaning to the abstract notion of human freedom. Along with civil and political rights, they spell out six core economic and social rights (ESRs):

  1. The right to food
  2. The right to health
  3. The right to education
  4. The right to housing
  5. The right to work
  6. The right to social security

Yet to date there has been no quantitative comparative metric to assess countries on their economic and social rights performance, or to measure human progress and flourishing according to these global normative principles. Qualitative evidence of violations reveals the severity of particular people’s suffering, but is of limited value for ongoing and comparative assessments that require aggregation. Quantitative data make possible systematic analysis of magnitudes and patterns—allowing us to better understand the relationship between socio-economic policies and ESR fulfillment.

Duty-bearers & Rights-holders

At first glance it may appear that other existing quantitative socioeconomic data sets, such as the Human Development Index, could be used to measure social and economic rights performance as well. But this is not the case.

The essence of human rights is that they are entitlements that people have a right to claim, and states and others in society have a duty to secure. Socio-economic statistics like school enrollment and infant mortality tell us only the extent to which individuals enjoy economic and social rights, but not whether a state is complying with its obligations to progressively respect, protect, and fulfill these rights.

The fulfillment of human rights must therefore be evaluated by reference to both the level of rights enjoyment by rights-holders, and the level of the duty-bearing states’ compliance with their obligations.

The “Progressive Realization” Escape Hatch

The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights requires that:  “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps … to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.”

By establishing that countries are obligated to progressively fulfill rights to the maximum of available resources, international human rights covenants recognize the distinctly different economic starting points of every country, and also that full realization of all economic, social, and cultural rights may not be achievable immediately given resource constraints. At the same time, the progressive realization obligation requires that states move as quickly as possible toward the realization of rights, and that they use the resources that are available as effectively as possible to fulfill ESRs to the greatest extent feasible.

However, this principle of progressive realization has long been used as an escape hatch by countries claiming inadequate resources in order to avoid accountability for failing to fulfill their ESR obligations. In the absence of an objective metric indicating how well countries should be able to perform in terms of rights fulfillment at any given resource level, countries can argue that they are doing the best they can, subject to their resource constraints.

The Social & Economic Rights Fulfillment (SERF) Index

In my forthcoming book, my colleagues and I develop and apply an objective, cross-national yardstick to assess social progress according to consensus global norms—the economic and social rights articulated in international human rights law.

The Social & Economic Rights Fulfillment (SERF) is a summary measure of social and economic rights performance based on international norms, focusing on the core rights enumerated in multiple ESR legal instruments. The SERF Index for the first time allows apples-to-apples comparisons of ESR performance over time and across similarly situated countries:

  • operationalizing the principle of progressive realization
  • incorporating both rights-holders’ and duty-bearers’ perspectives
  • using objective survey data collected by official statistical agencies
  • revealing broad trends over time, and is comparable across countries
  • allowing disaggregation by right, as well as by subnational population groups

Although “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” what if, instead of judging countries by per capita income and its growth, we instead judge the success of nations according to the irreducible, non-negotiable normative framework of international human rights law? Might we not then be able to hold states accountable for their human rights commitments? Might we then perhaps be better able to identify the kinds of economic institutions, policies and practices that enable us to translate economic resources into human flourishing?