A human-oriented approach to the measurement of economic  performance and social progress
Wall Street, New York Stock Exchange. (Credit: Songquan Deng/Bigstock.com) (via: bit.ly)

The setting of development goals at both global and local levels, as well as their practical monitoring and evaluation, is once again in the spotlight for international organisations and heads of state and government. At the UN meeting of 25 September 2015, 193 countries adopted 17 global sustainable development goals (SDGs) and approved 230 indicators in order to monitor the implementation of these goals.

As far back as antiquity, humanity has attempted to express its activities mathematically, but the well-known indicators used today – including Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – were only formed after World War Two. Much research has been conducted on the peculiarities of statistical approaches to the measurement of economic and social progress, but in order to explore the key question of how development goals are established, I would like to look at the post-war social context.

The post-war world was divided between two poles: on one side, an ideology with unrestricted free-market competition as its centrepiece, whereas on the other side, predominant ideas included social equality and the public ownership of the means of production. Each system formed development goals based on its own values, which in turn determined criteria for ‘successful’ development. After the demise of the latter system, the use of a single set of standardised goals worldwide was normalised.

At the same time, Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ theory, which described the global diversity of cultures and civilisations, doomed their representatives to inevitable conflicts along civilisational lines. Before the demise of the bipolar world, Immanuel Wallerstein had proposed his world-systems theory, in which different systems do not enter into conflict, but constitute dominant centres of civilisation with dependent regions built around them, forming a semi-periphery and periphery.

As the Indian futurist and co-founder of the World Public Forum ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’, Jagdish Kapur, wrote, “a humane system of development cannot evolve in the absence of an understanding of the basic human quest”. According to Kapur, this quest can be different for different civilisations, but it always reflects the ecological and social values of each civilisation and indicates a certain route to the ultimately universal goals of humanity, whether these be the attainment of wealth or power, aesthetic excellence, or intellectual development.

Without going into detail as to the complexity of historical processes and the practical absence of perfect models of either socialism or capitalism, let me consider some key issues for the contemporary agenda:


In May 2017, the Think 20 Global Solutions summit was held in Berlin. Think20 is a network of research institutes from G20 countries.  The gathering highlighted numerous issues.

Many people now feel that economic growth has become decoupled from social progress. The G20 should respond by creating the conditions not only for economic development but also for social prosperity.” Dennis Snower, president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy

We are living in a quite dangerous world right now, and there is no reason for complacency. Our institutions are not working, and our governments are not working, mine, first and foremost. We are in a massive political crisis – the likes of which we have not seen, perhaps since the Civil War – and I do not think I am speaking hyperbolically.” Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

According to Oxfam, as of 2017, 10% of the world’s population own 89% of the world’s capital, and the world’s eight richest people possess a collective fortune equal to that of the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people. Inequality exists and is escalating in some cases. Economist Thomas Piketty, in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, shows global trends of recent decades: in many countries, the rich gain wealth faster than the poor; and inequality globally is also growing.

Meanwhile, the structure of society has been changing. For example, despite economic growth, the middle class in the United States has been reduced in size. According to Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner in economics, excessive financialisation is one reason for the growth of economic inequality (Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy: An Agenda for Growth and Shared Prosperity, 2015). If the evaluation of development in terms of economic growth becomes the goal itself, this often leads to negative consequences. Attempting to preserve their attractiveness to outside investors, economies develop with an undue emphasis on economic performance. Policies related to quality of life, such as issues related to education, medicine, infrastructure, and ecology tend to be deemphasised in favour of accelerated economic growth.


Let’s look at unemployment statistics for young people in 2017: Germany,  6.4%; China, almost 11%; world average, 13.6%; Russia, 16.2%; European Union, 19%; France, 23.5%; Spain, almost 40%; Greece, over 40%.  The global average and the European Union average are relatively similar, whilst within the European Union, there are significant differences with Greece and Spain at one end of the spectrum, with a youth unemployment rate of almost 40%, compared to 6% in Germany. These statistics show the limitations of an ‘average-hospital-temperature’ approach, which only takes generalised economic indicators into account and does not pay attention to qualitative structures.

Structure of employment

Considering the rapid growth of robot-intensive industries, we can expect a steady decline in the share of employment in manufacturing. Changes in the structure of employment will transform attitudes towards traditional labour activity and change the concept of labour. These changes are likely to take place within one generation.


There has been significant growth, globally, in the proportion of people living in cities. In 2008, the global total exceeded 50% of the world’s population and by 2016 it was 56.7%. The organisation of urban living space is now at the top of social science agendas. Today, it is not enough to provide people with housing and basic needs. It is also necessary to attend to the religious and cultural aspects of social life.


Over the past 30 years, many attempts have been made to create new integrated indicators of development that do not only take economic factors into account, but also look at social components of development. For example, the Human Development Index; the  Genuine Progress Indicator; the Global Peace Index, and the Inclusive Development Index.  The World Happiness Report is an annual publication by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network which contains rankings of national happiness and analysis of data from various perspectives. This index compares countries in two ways: a happiness score (a self-reported measure of wellbeing obtained by way of a questionnaire) and GDP per person (an indicator of economic growth). We can see that the populations of countries with relatively low GDP have managed to reach higher positions in terms of happiness. For example, Costa Rica takes 13th position in terms of happiness , although it is only 65th in terms of GPD. Other contrasts can be seen in Latin America as well: Mexico 24 (58); Chile 25 (48); Panama 26 (51); Brazil 27 (69); Argentina 28 (54); and Guatemala 29 (98). Some countries with high levels of economic development have notably lower happiness rankings: Qatar 31 (1st in terms of GDP per person); Saudi Arabia 32 (11); and Singapore 33 (3).

Demand for new approaches to development

As indicated in the new report to the Club of Rome, Come On: “Measuring our success [in terms of] GDP growth has proven inadequate to the task and […] also masks a growth in inequality between rich and poor. The present model of development is seriously flawed.”

Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, the co-president of the Club of Rome, went further: “Our shared wellbeing on a healthy planet demands a rethinking of reigning philosophies and a new Enlightenment that could seek inspiration from old traditions.


The limitations of existing approaches for the setting of development goals and their respective indicators are clear. Steps should be taken to design a new methodology, a human-centred approach for identifying development goals. Studies should take place in an interdisciplinary and intercultural context. It is necessary to pay significant attention to the transformation of life under the influence of new technologies. Quantitative and qualitative analysis should undergird the implementation of human-oriented development programmes. The future will depend on social and economic conditions being created for the realisation of human potential.


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Vladimir Yakunin

Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Head of the Department of State Governance of the Faculty of Political Science, Moscow State University, RU

Russian business leader and philanthropist. Former President of Russian Railways (2005-2015). Head of the Department of State Governance of the Faculty of Political Science of the Lomonosov Moscow State University. Doctor of Political Sciences; visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics; visiting professor at Peking University; Honorary Doctor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry; Member of the Russian Academy of Social Sciences. Vladimir Yakunin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Mechanics as a Mechanical Engineer in 1972. After completing military service he worked with the Administration of the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR for Foreign Trade and as a department head at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute. In 1985-1991, Vladimir Yakunin was Second and then First Secretary of the USSR’s Permanent Representative Office at the United Nations. In the 1990s, Vladimir Yakunin occupied various positions in business and public service, including high-ranking positions in the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. Yakunin served as Deputy Minister of Transport and as first Deputy Minister of Railways. In 2005 he was appointed CEO of Russian Railways, Russia's largest employer, a position he held until 2015. Vladimir Yakunin is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the St Andrew the First-Called Foundation and a member of the Russian-French Trianon Dialogue Coordination Council. In 2013, Vladimir Yakunin founded the Endowment for the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations, aimed at supporting research in the sphere of political and social sciences, religion and culture, developing communication between countries on political and economic matters, and seeking compromise in cases of social unrest and international disputes. In 2016, together with the Former Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer and Professor Peter W. Schulze of the Georg-August University of Gőttingen, he founded the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. Vladimir Yakunin was appointed Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Institute. Vladimir Yakunin has received around 30 state awards, both Russian and international.