Oxfam Scotland: “GDP is not an adequate measure for addressing poverty”

Guest blog: Francis Stuart  | Research and Policy Adviser, Oxfam Scotland

Today is the United Nations’ international day for the eradication of poverty but, if we are to tackle poverty then we need to develop better ways of measuring success.

Oxfam is best known for our work overseas – responding to international emergencies and undertaking long term development work aimed at overcoming poverty and suffering. But we have also had a poverty programme in the United Kingdom since 1996, with specific country programmes in Scotland, England and Wales. We work the same way in the UK as we do overseas: partnering with community groups to support them to tackle poverty in their area.

Through our programme work in Scotland, we learned that economic growth and economic development was too often failing to benefit the people we worked with.

This view is supported by the largest ever study of poverty undertaken in the UK – the Poverty and Social exclusion survey.

Published earlier this year, it found: “The percentage of households who fall below society’s minimum standard of living has increased from 14 per cent to 33 per cent over the last 30 years.”

That this took place at the same time as the size of the economy doubled is a damning indictment of our focus on trickle-down economic growth. Clearly economic growth, as measured by GDP, is not an adequate measure for addressing poverty. 

That being the case, what is the alternative?

In 2012 we launched the Oxfam Humankind Index.

This is an attempt to create a new way of measuring what makes a good life. It takes money into account, but it also recognises that it takes more than just economic growth to make a prosperous nation. It focuses on identifying the social foundations people need to live a fulfilling life.

The construction of the Humankind Index was deliberately participatory – we wanted to involve people in determining the things that matter to them. We also wanted to reach groups that are ‘seldom-heard’ in mainstream policy making (people with experience of a disability, people with experience of homelessness, refugee communities). Governments often call them ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. In reality, they are not hard to reach – you just have to make the effort, go out to local communities, and – crucially – resource that process.

We did just that: we ran focus groups, community workshops and street stalls – in addition to online and telephone surveys.

In total we spoke to 3,000 people across Scotland.
In doing so, we actively sought to remove barriers – such as childcare and transport costs – that often prevent or discourage people from engaging in the sort of narrow consultations that for too long have led to non-representative policies and outcomes.

The question that we asked was: ‘What do you need to live well in your community?’ This was left deliberately wide to avoid constraining the feedback we received.

The outcome of all those conversations was the Humankind Index – a set of 18 ‘factors of prosperity’ which we believe offer an improved representation of the priorities of the people of Scotland.

Top of that list was:

An affordable, decent and safe home to live in
Good physical and mental health
Living in a neighbourhood where you can enjoy going outside and having a clean and healthy environment
Having satisfying work to do (paid or unpaid)
Having good relationships with family and friends

Interestingly – the financial factors don’t appear until round about the middle of the list. And when they do appear – they are not about earning lots of money. They are about a secure source of income that provides enough to live on.

None of this is complex – these are basic foundations which are pretty obviously important, when you think about it. But they are too often neglected in favour of simplistic indicators like Gross Domestic Product.

We must start to move away from GDP as the key indicator of societal success and towards measures that take account of the social and environmental foundations we all need to live on. Until we do, we risk several more UN International days for the eradication of poverty passing us by with little real progress.