Measuring what matters and making connections between SDGs

To what extent should economic indicators be used to measure how well an economy is doing? While this might seem a rather strange question, it could be argued that this only makes sense if the economy is the end in itself. If on the other hand the economy is seen as a means to an end than it is arguable that other ‘end’ outcomes should be used to measure progress. 

If the overall objective is sustainable wellbeing, then a focus on wider social and environmental measures may give a better indication of how well the economy is contributing to this. A clearer idea of social and environmental progress, relative to economic indicators, may then allow you to look at how different approaches to organising an economy work in terms of achieving desired ends.

This is the approach the Social Progress Imperative have taken in developing their index of social progress, which they see as a practical tool to track and report progress towards the UN’s SDGs. They don’t use any purely economic measures in constructing the index. Instead they look at 51 indicators across three broad categories: basic human needs, the foundations of wellbeing (including environmental quality) and opportunity. 


The top ten performers are Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, New Zealand, Germany, Canada and Japan. All high income countries but not necessarily the ones with highest economic output per head.

At low levels of income there appears to be a strong relationship between social progress and income but as income increases this relationship appears to weaken (see graph chart below from the SPI’s latest annual report). This relationship between income and wider wellbeing (measured either subjectively or objectively) has been widely commented on (often termed the Easterlin Paradox) after it was first highlighted in the ‘70’s.



A decent level of income would therefore appear to be a necessary condition for wellbeing but not a sufficient one.

A related question concerns the degree to which there is an often assumed trade-off between strong economic performance and wellbeing, sometimes referred to as efficiency v equity? This need not be the case, indeed there could be a strong synergy between the two, for example, secure employment, where employees having a stake in the success of the employer, may help boost innovation and productivity at both the level of the company and the wider economy. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have argued this type of relationship is at the heart of economic development processes and distinguish between the long term performance of ‘inclusive’ and ‘extractive’ economies. While the IMF have highlighted that too much inequality can also damage economic performance.

Understanding the connections within complex socio-economic systems (both positive synergies and negative trade-offs) is vital to the design and implementation of policy and practice. There is growing interest in looking at links between the SDGs and the processes that help make the connections∗. One such process could be the supply chains of goods and services, which, for example, could bring together:

  • The use of natural resources and the disposal of waste (SDGs 12, 14, 15)
  • The skills and conditions of workers throughout the chain (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10)
  • Production and distribution processes (SDGs 7, 9, 12, 13)
  • Reuse and recycling of products  (SDGs 11, 13, 14, 15)
  • Trading arrangements (SDGs 16, 17)
  • Supply chain resilience (SDGs 3, 9)

The more action can be geared towards promoting the synergies between the SDGs, while being alive the potential trade-offs, the more effective and efficient it is likely to be. Hence the current SUII call for proposals aimed at integrating the SDGs to accelerate progress.

This was highlighted in a recent Bond SDG Network webinar looking at new evidence on SDG synergies and trade-offs by Joseph Alcamo, Director of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme

Author: scotinsight

The Scottish Universities Insight Institute supports programmes of knowledge exchange which address and provide insight on substantial issues that face Scotland and the wider world. Our programmes break down disciplinary and organisational barriers in bringing together academics from different backgrounds, policymakers and practitioners to mobilise existing knowledge in fresh ways through sustained and collaborative focus on a shared issue. Our member universities are: Aberdeen, Dundee, Heriot Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde, and Glasgow School of Art.

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