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World Politics

Beyond GDP: UN looks at alternative measures of the wealth of nations - including birdsong, the number of girls attending school and a good night's sleep

The monetary value of the goods and services produced by a nation fail to reflect its social and environmental 'wealth', experts say

Levels of urban birdsong, the density of washing-machine ownership, the average number of hours slept and other eclectic statistics should be combined with traditional economic indicators to produce a truer picture of the wealth of nations, according to leading academics.

A United Nations conference will on Monday discuss calls for the way in which governments measure economic progress, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures, to be overhauled by factoring in some more unconventional measurements of progress.

Researchers increasingly believe that unorthodox indicators, ranging from the availability of cheap eyeglasses to the level of random of acts of kindness in a society, should be collated to produce a more insightful and rounded picture of human endeavour.

While measures such as GDP – the monetary value of the goods and services produced by a nation – remain keystones of economic comparison, they fail to reflect social and environmental “wealth” as well as causes of social tension, according to the experts.

Organisers of the conference in Malaysia said the global financial crisis had provoked a widespread sense that economic progress no longer equated with greater well-being, and growth in recent decades had been for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.

Professor Anantha Duraiappah, of the UN University, which is co-hosting the symposium, said: “New research has begun to show that people often value non-material wealth just as highly, if not more, than monetary wealth.

“Moreover, as countries develop, there are diminishing returns to quality of life from economic output.

“Indeed, the relationship becomes increasingly contentious and questionable. Growing inequality within and across nations is becoming a force for social tension and conflict in developing and developed countries alike,” she added.

New global measurements suggested by the experts include birth weight, which is an indicator of a child’s likely future quality of life; the number and sound of birds in a city, an indicator of biodiversity; and ownership of washing machines, whose requirement for piped water and electricity make them a good measure of development as well as the economic emancipation  of women.

The availability of eyeglasses is also a surprisingly effective way of measuring development – some 700 million people worldwide need glasses but cannot get them, costing the global economy an estimated $202bn (£120bn) a year.

Sir Partha Dasgupta, the eminent Cambridge University economist who is a pioneer in the area and oversaw the development of a new UN measure of so-called “human capital”, said statistics needed to reflect costs such as the regeneration of environmental assets.

He said: “We need to stretch the notion of ‘investment’. To leave a forest unmolested would be to invest in the forest; to allow a fishery to re-stock under natural conditions would be to invest in the fishery.”

The academics are calling on the UN to launch a programme to look at formalising the so-called “Beyond GDP” measurements, which could also include the number of teenage girls attending school (fewer than one in five girls attend a secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa) or average hours of sleep –  an indicator of the strength of social bonds and  emotional intelligence.

Zakri Abdul Hamid, a scientific adviser to the UN Secretary General, said: “GDP and other traditional yardsticks will continue to inform our understanding of economic performance, but the world’s perspective on progress needs to be enlarged, balanced and integrated with social and environmental indicators.”