Is It What You Measure That Really Matters? The Struggle to Move beyond GDP in Canada

In light of Gross Domestic Product’s (GDP) well-known limitations as a wellbeing indicator, many alternative measures have been developed around the world. Some advocates of “beyond GDP” measures argue that they are key to shifting societal priorities away from economic growth  toward sustainability, equity, and well-being. Is there any evidence to date that alternative indicators have lived up to their supporters’ expectations, whether the hope is for a radical transformation of social priorities away from GDP growth or a reformist vision of better policy making without challenging the growth paradigm? What are the obstacles to fulfilling those expectations? This article examines the Canadian experience, drawing on interviews with researchers, non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, public-sector officials, and politicians, along with analysis of relevant documents. The hopes of Canadian proponents of new wellbeing measures have been largely disappointed to date, as no impact on federal or provincial policy is evident. Obstacles facing both a transformative and more limited reformist vision are examined. The Canadian case also suggests that use of new socio-economic indicators is best seen as one product of political efforts to bring ecological and social values into decision-making, rather than as the transformative force that will cause a change in societal priorities.

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Jeffrey Wilson