Historical Social Research

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Philipp Lepenies: Transforming by Metrics that Matter – Progress, Participation, and the National Initiatives of Fixing Well-Being Indicators. [Abstract]

The goal of governments is to enhance the well-being of their citizens. In the aftermath of World War II, national product (be it gross national or gross domestic) and its rate of growth were seen as a proxy indicator to measure well-being – making economic growth doubtless the most powerful political indicator in history. Yet, in light of the negative effects of growth such as climate change and due to methodological progress in measuring well-being or happiness, governments have begun to reconsider the belief that growth automatically leads to improved well-being. The Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 underline a universal desire to “transform our world” and the fact that this transformation is to be done with the help of alternative statistical indicators. In the last decade, a number of national governments have embarked on a largely unnoticed, but revolutionary OECD-driven endeavor: to fix national alternative measures of well-being “beyond GDP”, to decide in a participatory manner which indicators matter to people and to discuss which new or adapted notion of progress is valid in the 21st century. This paper will highlight a number of these national cases and analyze the context in which these initiatives evolved. It will be shown that although revolutionary in their aspirations, many initiatives do not live up to their expectations. This has to do with the manner in which they were executed, with the political unwillingness to really consider alternatives to GDP and to allow broad participation. But it might also show that the expectations regarding the power of indicators to guide policies might be exaggerated.

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