research institute for compassionate economics

Social progress and social inequality: Measurements and assessments are needed… and possible

Written by Dean Spears on November 3rd, 2018

One of r.i.c.e’s recent projects is SARI: a phone survey for Social Attitudes Research in India. A series of papers and other writings by Diane, Amit, Payal, Nazar, Nidhi, and the SARI team have shown that it is possible to construct a representative sample with a phone survey, and that people will answer survey questions (sometimes surprisingly) on what you might expect to be sensitive social issues.

Eventually, SARI may help us answer even bigger questions than can be asked in a phone survey. How are people in India doing these days? The first step in answering such a big question is deciding what the question means. “By what measure?”, we should ask. The classic measure is economic growth and wealth: GDP per capita or, for those concerned about the poor, poverty rates.

But researchers have understood for decades that the economic numbers do not tell us enough to fully understand progress in well-being. For example, economic growth could come at the cost of environmental destruction. A country could be rapidly increasing its GDP while at the same time making future suffering difficult to avoid. Most observers now agree that economic growth in the developed world has done so, causing climate change that will threaten lives and livelihoods in India and elsewhere.

So, a full assessment requires considering environmental costs alongside GDP. That has been part of the job of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): to take stock of the atmosphere’s well-being, including the prospects for climate damages. Forming such an international scientific consensus is hard work, but it is important and informative. Still, even incorporating environmental issues into a global stocktake does not fully capture well-being, because it does not measure social progress.

Such was the realization of the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP), a project of over 200 authors, inspired by the collaboration of the IPCC. The IPSP report has recently been launched in a series of events around the world, including in Delhi on 1 November. The IPSP’s report addresses global challenges and Indian challenges, and is available for download online.   One of my favorite parts is chapter 18, on global health and population.

As impressive as its three volumes are, they are a stocktaking for today’s situation. What about the future? Tracking social change and social inequality over time are new aspirations for India: SARI, as well as other social surveys such as the India Human Development Survey, show that new tools can measure change in all aspects of well-being. When tools such as these are further developed, widely used, and as commonplace as GDP statistics, then not only will we will have a better idea how people in India are doing, we will have the information we need to push social change forward.