A greener post-COVID development strategy: Time to mainstream new development indicators

By Sachin Chaturvedi, Director General, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS)

The COVID-19 crisis has given us an opportunity to reset development priorities as wider efforts to build forward better, with a smaller carbon footprint, make headway across countries. But are 20th century measurement instruments fit for the challenge? Building forward better requires effective and efficient measures adapted to desired development outcomes. For instance, the COVID-19 crisis has sensitised society to the need for better health infrastructure, as well as a greener and healthier environment. It has also exposed major social exclusion and increased inequalities. The pandemic has been a wakeup call to urgently fulfil the commitments of Agenda 2030 and shift to a new development paradigm connecting the five Ps: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership.

The crisis has brought to the fore the important issues of inter-generational equity and the limits of economic growth. Undermining the central spirit of Agenda 2030, the rush to exploit natural resources for the sake of economic growth has brought about climate change and adversely affected what this multilateral agenda aimed to leave for future generations. We should not forget that inter-generational equity is also central to the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

Already in 2015, the emergence of Agenda 2030 marked a paradigm shift as the world moved from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the most important facets of this change was a shift of emphasis from quantity to quality. This shift favours, for instance, a focus on the availability of nutritional food and not just food security per se, quality health and education, and the sustainable use of water and energy. In terms of generating livelihoods, this meant a shift from focusing on job guarantee and cash transfers to building an enabling ecosystem for entrepreneurship development. 

The COVID-19 crisis offers us the opportunity to bring the concept of quality over quantity back to the fore; for instance multidimensional well-being that goes beyond income and tries to capture vulnerabilities – which is now being widely discussed. In many parts of the world, pollution momentarily declined and ecosystems improved during lockdowns. The lockdowns led to reduced human mobility, lower consumption and production, and more sustainable lifestyles, that have in a way vetted the global debate on alternative development metrics and indicators such as a well-being framework and wellness indices, among others, that can capture the trade-offs between well-being, sustainability and development.  

Cardinal measures to capture well-being have been addressed with the single objective dimension of material well-being measured by income or GDP. This would help in computing composite measures that would capture the multi-dimensional aspects of well-being. In this context, it is to be noted that global debates have already covered subjective criteria for well-being measurement, including determinants of happiness and income across time, inequality, unemployment, and inflation, in addition to addressing non-economic determinants like family life, etc. Further, a less explored dimension is how the umbilical link between nature and all living beings can be the rationale for conservation. By all means, environmental protection will also be a key factor to measure the sustainability of economic programmes. Countries that are home to international biosphere reserves and the majority of medicinal biological resources need to take the lead in integrating the conservation of these resources and associated traditional knowledge in development plans.

Here attention can also be drawn to the wellness index outlined in the RIS BRICS Wellness Report (2016). Some of the indices that may be of immediate use include the Aggregate Material Well-being Index (MWI), the Human Proficiency Index (HPI), the Composite Health Index (CHI) and the Sustainability Index (SI). The four indices capture: income and inclusiveness; living standards; physical and digital connectivity; access to and quality of school education; access to vocational and professional education/skills development; access to preventive and curative health, maternal and child health and mental health; mortality and morbidity; health hazards; renewable and clean energy; sustainable infrastructure; waste management; and biodiversity protection.

Several institutions, like the OECD and others, have already launched efforts to create integrated environmental and economic indices of sustainable economic welfare. Additionally, several interesting publications have come up in the last two decades. Take for instance the efforts spurred by the COVID-19 crisis to better understand the inequality-environment nexus. OECD research shows how the impacts of environmental degradation are concentrated among vulnerable groups and households. Policy action at the national and international level needs to be informed by new indicators that better capture the intersectionality of environmental and social challenges, along with more accurate and timely information on how different demographic groups and territories are affected by environmental degradation.  

However, due to a lack of consolidated efforts to include these indices in the international framework, they have largely remained on the sidelines. The impediments to implementing these indices are wide-ranging, from choosing what to measure, to institutional preparedness for data collection, along with issues like ensuring appropriate time series data and gaining wider consensus for representative and reliable indicators. Nevertheless, we need to appreciate that, even at a limited scale to begin with, governments would have to start recasting part of their statistical machinery to adopt and accept the new metrics. Multilateral and regional institutions may play an important role in guiding such processes and building capacities to achieve consensus driven global and regional indicators (for effective comparison), that also allow for local variations. 

The international system’s governance and frameworks have yet to catch up with new economic realities of shared challenges, new development priorities, and the emergence of new major international development players. This series offers insights from a group of experts on Development in Transition, from Asia, Africa and Latin America, on why and how the international community should empower a broader variety of actors, be guided by a wider range of voices, and employ new development narratives and indicators, and a larger set of modalities, to achieve shared global goals.