Tracking our Progress as a Country

Last Friday’s Remembrance Day served as a catalyst for getting me, and hopefully others, thinking about what’s truly important. After all, have we become the kind of country our war veterans fought to preserve? Have we made the kind of progress they envisioned?

Until now that might have been difficult to answer with certainty. Now, there’s both good news and bad news in responding to those questions.

The good news is that veterans might be proud to know that Canada has become a world leader in measuring wellbeing. The bad news is that our quality of life needs some work. 

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), located at the University of Waterloo, has developed a comprehensive composite index as the result of searching for an alternative to gross domestic product (GDP) as the sole measure of our country’s progress. They did so because GDP is simply a calculation of all goods and services produced in a country in one year. It also fails to subtract negative activities that pollute our air, water, and land. 

CIW instead addresses the more positive activities not addressed by GDP that take place outside of the formal marketplace. These include the value of unpaid housework, child care, volunteering, and leisure time. Instead, CIW works from the premise that wellbeing is multi-dimensional and needs to examine a variety of social, economic, and environmental factors. Consequently, the CIW now tracks changes in eight quality of life categories or domains that include Democratic Engagement, Living Standards, Healthy Populations, Time Use, Leisure and Culture, Community Vitality, Education, and Environment. Tracking and reporting on these domains, as well as how they connect, interact, and impact our wellbeing, can help us better understand root causes as well as shape public policy.

The most recent CIW results, released this past October, show that Canadians’ quality of life hasn’t improved at anywhere near the pace of economic growth as measured by GDP. Since 1994, the starting point for the CIW, Canada’s wellbeing has seen an overall improvement of 11 per cent. This is nowhere near the 31 per cent growth in the country’s GDP in the same period of time.

It shows us that we’re not reaping all the benefits of economic growth. In fact, in some areas our quality of life has actually decreased. For example, our quality of life has gone down in areas such as the environment, leisure and culture, and time use, with only modest gains in health. And, even in areas where growth has been robust, research shows that it was the top 20 per cent of our population that received the lion’s share of rising income and wealth during the boom years, while the gap in the bottom 20 per cent grew even larger.

These results prompt questions all of us should be asking.  How did the lion’s share of gains in income and wealth end up with the richest 20% of our population, while the gap between the rest of us is widening?  Why is it that we’re living longer but experiencing poorer health? We aren’t we doing something about greenhouse gas emissions? Why is it that we’re not enjoying our leisure time? Where did the benefits from the rest of our economic growth end up?

It is these questions that will prompt the conversations and solutions required to ensure our wellbeing and our quality of life grows along with GDP. They are questions every Canadian should be fighting to have answered.

Posted on 11-13-11

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