Humankind Index: our new approach to measuring prosperity, one year on

As the G8 leaders prepare to gather in Belfast and there are renewed calls to look beyond GDP, Oxfam Scotland releases its second Humankind Index (HKI) results, an attempt to do just that.  In a bid to find a new way to measure what makes a good life, Oxfam Scotland asked the people in Scotland what matters to them and then checked how the nation was doing against those indicators. Here Francis Stuart looks at the second assessment of the HKI, released yesterday.

The contradiction is stark: despite decades of economic growth, too many people in Scotland have seen too few benefits. Instead they face a cocktail of high mortality, economic inactivity, mental and physical ill-health, poor educational attainment, and exclusion from the decisions that affect them.

…economic growth alone is both an insufficient and outdated goal of public policy…

With this in mind, we’ve just published the second assessment of the Humankind Index – a new measure of Scotland’s collective prosperity. Launched a year ago, the Index recognises that economic growth alone is both an insufficient and outdated goal of public policy. Fundamentally, it fails to address longstanding problems of poverty and inequality in our society.

The development of the Oxfam Humankind Index shows a new approach to measuring prosperity in Scotland is possible – one that moves beyond economic growth and increased consumption and looks instead at a broader range of factors that matter to people and communities.

As you can see from our top picture, the creation of the Index was deliberately participatory. We involved 3,000 people and reached out to those seldom-heard groups who are so often excluded from mainstream decision making. More information about the 18 priority ‘sub-domains’ identified can be found here.

So what do the results tell us, one year on?

HKI download Well, the headline figure suggests a small rise in prosperity for Scotland of 1.2% between 2010/11 and 2009/10. However, the overall impression is of a society where prosperity is flat-lining. And worryingly, the report shows that deprived communities continue to lag behind the rest of Scotland on the vast majority of measures, although the overall gap has narrowed slightly from 11% to 10%.

This year’s report includes a gender comparison for the first time. Interestingly, women score marginally higher than men, although the overall picture is very mixed with the areas in which women fare better and the areas in which men fare better being evenly balanced.

Scratching below the surface

It is not until we look beyond the high level results and dig down to see what is happening in the 18 sub-domains of the Index, (what Joseph Stiglitz called  ‘the dashboard’), that we get a real picture of Scotland’s prosperity and the implications for public policy. Although the Index is up overall, this masks important variations within the different sub-domains.

Improved health, feeling safe and being part of a community are all factors which positively contributed to Scotland’s prosperity. The increase in health is perhaps unsurprising given positive trends in national health outcomes such as life expectancy (although widening health inequalities remain a problem). The rise in community spirit could suggest communities are coming together when times are hard. However, as the changes are relatively small, this conclusion – like all others – should be treated with caution.

At the same time as these increases, peoples’ satisfaction with housing, ‘secure/suitable work’ and ‘having enough money’ all decreased. While the changes are relatively small, this suggests continuing economic uncertainty is dragging down Scotland’s prosperity, at the same time as other sub-domains were improving slightly or remaining stable.

Satisfaction with housing, work and ‘having enough money’ all decreased… economic uncertainty is dragging down Scotland’s prosperity.

Investing where it matters

So what are the implications for public policy of these results?

It is important not to over-interpret the findings; however, the index does give an indication of where policy makers should invest to improve people’s lives. Health continues to have a significantly positive impact on the Index, showing investment here can improve overall prosperity. Similarly a lack of satisfaction with housing has a significantly negative impact – suggesting the government needs to do more to improve our housing stock.

During times of economic uncertainty and constrained public budgets it is particularly important that government invests in the areas that improve the wellbeing and collective prosperity of Scots. Given the Index reflects the priorities of the people of Scotland, it provides a framework in which to do this.

Dissecting our data – what next for the Humankind Index?

We’re upfront in saying the Humankind Index is not perfect. Reporting on an annual basis means that changes are generally small and often not statistically significant. As such it can be quite difficult to tell if we are seeing real trends or not. While the same can be said of GDP figures (for which far too much is often read into without an account of wider economic factors) it may be that we move to a three-year reporting cycle to allow the data to tell more of a story. 

Of course the downside of doing this would be that the Humankind Index wouldn’t retain the same relevance that GDP stats do, given they are released every three months.  We’re open to thoughts about the best way forward on this, so please let us know of your ideas!

There are also some sub-domains where the indicators used are problematic. This is partly because we aren’t very good at measuring certain aspects. For example, the quality of people’s relationships should be an important factor to measure, assess performance on, and use to inform public policy. But at the moment we don’t. Also, the sub-domains of the Index are complex and not easily summed up by a single indicator. Measuring what constitutes ‘secure and suitable work’ is an example of this. Over the coming months we hope to work with government and others to
develop and improve some of these indicators – we’ve already identified potential alternative indicators for health and financial security.

In the meantime we think the overall strength of the Index – as a reflection of the priorities of the people of Scotland – is as important as ever. And, most of all, we want policy makers to use the sub-domains of the Humankind Index when considering forthcoming legislation, the Scottish Government’s Budget and debates about Scotland’s constitutional future.

Would this be more valuable than simply using GDP? What do you think? 

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Author: Francis Stuart
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.