That gross domestic product (GDP) is not a fully satisfying measure of a country's progress is no longer news. The awareness of GDP's inadequacies in revealing a nation's state of development is now almost mainstream. The driving mantra that "anything that can be measured can be improved" has been faulted for excessive linearity and misleading objectivity. A year after winning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998, Amartya Sen published Development as Freedom. The book starts with this straight-shooting statement: "Development can be seen… as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialisation, or with technological advance, or with social modernisation."
A decade later, in 2009, three economists—Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi—led a groundbreaking study on alternatives to GDP, commissioned by the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Then, after more than a decade of contestations and, now, in the wake of a global pandemic that has both revealed and magnified the systemic social inequities across the world, measuring a nation's progress in a holistic and meaningful way seems more urgent than ever before.
Meanwhile, since 1972, Bhutan has been promoting a "gross national happiness (GNH)" index as a way to balance the influence of modernity and the preservation of tradition with a Buddhist ethos of compassion, contentment, and calmness. After the 2008 financial crisis, the world took a serious look at GNH as a viable alternative to growth-centric development models.
Ironically, when in 2017, the United Nations released a report ranking countries by happiness, Bhutan came 97th, while Norway claimed the title of the happiest country. Lately, the people of Bhutan have not been unified in their country's self-branding as a "happy country." A Bhutanese radio host summarised the rising cynicism within the country this way: "The idea of GNH may have put Bhutan on the map, but the concept has been hijacked by the West—and quantified to a degree that makes it unrecognisable to ordinary Bhutanese."
Measuring happiness remains elusive due to its disconcerting range of subjectivities—from happiness as personal emotion at a particular time (I am feeling happy because I had an ice cream today) to happiness as a cognitive evaluation of something (I love riding the commuter train because it brings me to my destination safely and punctually every day).
Many experts have been talking about "wellbeing" as a more inclusive and sustainable metric than the ones that predominantly focus on measurable indicators such as per capita income. Consider this: Bangladesh's per capita GDP is nearing USD 2000. Bangladesh is now the third fastest growing economy in the world. A paltry USD 8.75 billion at the time of its independence, its economy is expected to reach nearly USD 500 billion by 2025. The world appears to consider Bangladesh a success story. This is great news.
However, the experience of impressive national development in the country's everyday life is considerably uneven. If you ask a woman on the way to work near a bus stop in Dhaka about how her life is these days, she may answer you like this: life is much better than before since I can make ends meet, but my house rent is too high and finding an affordable, quality primary school for my children is a constant struggle. Besides, I am always anxious about being sexually harassed on public transportation.
If seven out of 10 random respondents on the street express more or less the same feeling, then there is a serious policy need to come up with new indicators of the quality of everyday life. This, of course, does not mean that GDP is obsolete. The argument here is that the conventional indicators should be complemented with other types to understand the effects of national development on daily lives.
How should policymakers recalibrate prevailing metrics to assess conditions on the ground? The experience of daily life can be measured with a combination of quantitative (air quality) and qualitative metrics (use of zebra crossing as a street safety tool). Could supra-indicators like GDP or other health measures be complemented by what could be called "experiential indicators?" (I focus here only on cities; there should be indicators for rural wellbeing too).
The following experiential indicators could be considered.
Footpath and Walk Score: People of all economic classes and gender should be able to use footpaths comfortably, safely, and pleasurably. Footpaths must have adequate width to facilitate a two-way pedestrian traffic and be free of obstructions. Many cities now use Walk Score to measure the walkability of an address. Walk Score is based on how long a person needs to reach a nearby urban amenity (such as a park or a hospital or a metro station). The highest score is awarded to an address where an amenity is reached in five minutes by walking, while zero point is given to those that have facilities requiring more than a 30-minute walk. A "walker's paradise" has a Walk Score of 90-100. Walkability makes a city humane, democratic, and healthy. It represents an urban area's state of wellbeing and the best weapon against oligarchic segregation of the city.
Public transportation: It is now common wisdom that the backbone of sustainable urbanism is mass transit because it is the most cost-effective and environment-friendly way to facilitate urban mobility. Cities use Transit Score to measure how well a location is served by mass transit. It is calculated by the usefulness of public transport in terms of the routes used, frequency of service, and accessibility to the nearest station on the route. The forthcoming elevated metro in Dhaka should be an opportune moment to institute Transit Score as a measure of urban wellbeing in Dhaka.
Waste management: Going around in the streets of Dhaka or any other big city in Bangladesh, one would face the inevitable environmental calamity: the rotting solid waste on the street. We have a precariously low public hygiene threshold for reasons that require national debates and robust anthropological studies. With Bangladesh's rapid urbanisation, the total solid waste generation in cities is expected to reach up to 47,000 tons per day by 2025. If 50 percent of Dhaka's daily solid waste remain uncollected on the streets, how would GDP reduce the stench? We need Solid Waste Management Score (SWMS) to measure the state of public health in a location. If I go to Lalmatia to rent a house, I should be able find out the area's SWMS and then decide whether I should rent there or not.
Access to green and natural environment: Nature is therapeutic. Urban greenery are our best and cheapest public-health infrastructures that rejuvenate us and keep us healthy. Livable cities create miniature forests as urban oases, building an ecosystem of trees, birds, wind, air, smell, and quiet. A green park can create Zen moments, lowering the mental stress of hectic city life. City corporations and municipalities should start using the Urban Neighbourhood Green Index (UNGI) to assess the quantity and quality of green spaces at the neighbourhood level. Neighbourhood competitions to improve UNGI should have an impact at a city scale. The fruits of economic growth must be experienced in our daily lives.
Quality of public space: A city without accessible, pedestrian-friendly, and democratic public spaces is like a room without a window, suffocating, claustrophobic, and unhealthy. Public spaces nurture community spirit among urban inhabitants. If you are in Barcelona for the first time as a tourist, you are most likely to visit Las Ramblas before finding out Spain's GDP. Most "public spaces" in Dhaka are street nodes like Shahbagh Mor, TSC intersection, or Manik Mia Avenue. None of these nodal places are designed as safe and healthy public spaces. What would be Dhaka's Public Space Index?
Internet accessibility: The global competitiveness and digital democracy of cities will increasingly be determined by their access to broadband. Almost a quarter of urban Americans—23 percent or 62 million people—do not have broadband access. In Brazil it is 38 percent, India 31 percent, and Germany 11 percent. According to a survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in 2019, in Bangladesh, 62 percent of households do not have internet access at home. The reasons for this disparity are quality of the internet, affordability, IT literacy, and socioeconomic conditions of a country. In a post-pandemic world, the measure of a city's digital democracy will be one of the ways to determine its livability and wellbeing. The quality of the virtual space will be as important as the physical space. However, measuring the adverse effects of excessive online usage, particularly social media, on people is equally important.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence and introspect on its progress, it would be prudent to be creative about experiential indicators to measure the state of our development on the ground rather than blindly trusting trickle-down economics. It is also important to measure the environmental and social costs of development. Not an end in itself, development must be assessed (both quantitatively and qualitatively) for the quality of its effect on people's lives, while the very notion of development must be open to public reasoning. On the flip side, blanket criticism of "development" has lately become a popular middleclass pastime and a biased prop for government-bashing. What we need is objective assessments of, among others, the effects of a flyover in mitigating traffic congestion in the metropolis or quality of community-building through the restoration of urban parks or economic dividends of the Padma bridge.
Nicholas Kristof's recent op-ed in The New York Times on Bangladesh's hard-earned ability to teach the world "how to engineer progress" through investment in "education and girls" was a great birthday gift. It is beneficial to get good press. But the gushing reaction of Bangladeshis around the world almost suggested that unless we receive the validation of western media and pundits, we cannot be so sure of ourselves. The most important sign of a nation's self-confidence is its ability to self-assess, while aspiring to loftier goals.
Adnan Zillur Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.