A new report from the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards reveals how poorly Canadians have been faring compared to citizens of other industrial nations. Despite enjoying bragging rights in years past for finishing on top of the UN Human Development Index (now we have fallen to fourth), according to the CSLS index of economic and social well-being, poor performance on measures of equality and economic security left Canada in ninth place among 14 OECD countries surveyed (the U.S. was 13th).
The CSLS report starts from the premise that more is not the same as better. For example, since green house gas emissions grow with Gross Domestic Product, this commonly used measure of output per person presents an incomplete and, indeed, erroneous picture of how we are doing as a country. It has long been recognized that not all economic activity is positive. For instance, increases in car accidents add to GDP growth.
One important aspect of what GDP increases represent is formerly unpaid work by women that has been translated into market activity, as families eat out, send out their laundry, or hire domestic services. Unpaid work by women remains important of course, and unmeasured by GDP. But the composite indicator that the CSLS has been developing does make provision for unpaid work.
The recent French Presidential Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress chaired by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner Joeseph Stiglitz, cited approvingly work by Andrew Sharpe, CSLC Executive Director, and Lars Osberg of Dalhousie University, who first started presenting their alternative to the GDP some 15 years ago.
Though these Canadians have been at the forefront of attempts to re-think what it means to live well, you would not know it by relying on Canadian official sources or media reports. Statistics Canada, the Canadian government, the mainstream media, and business groups remain fixated on GDP growth. Today you can read about the findings of the CSLS index in the French business magazine Expansion which partners with CSLS in publishing their reports, or in articles in Le Monde. Goldman Sachs London office cites the work.
While attention in Canada has been limited, Andrew Sharpe has been a consultant to the Atkinson-sponsored Canadian Institute of Well-Being chaired by Roy Romanow.
The CLSC first initiated work on what it means to be economically secure, have access to consumption, benefit from wealth, and enjoy relative equality, with a small grant from Human Resources and Development Canada. The first report noted a deterioration in Canadian well-being, notably because of a rise in economic insecurity due to cutbacks in unemployment insurance. Since HRDC was responsible for administering U.I./E.I. they did not like the findings, or seeing their money spent showing how they were making things worse for Canadians. The grant was not renewed, and the project was kept alive only through the personal efforts of Sharpe and Osberg.
While the search for truth lies outside the purview of government, at least in Canada, the search for political adversaries continues apace. Just recently, two excellent research-based NGOs are reported to be losing funding. Kairos, the interfaith body charged with investigating social and economic justice, an invaluable ally of those interested in knowing about the state of the world, is slated to lose a $7 million CIDA grant, ending 35 years of support. Just to show they have no bias against Anglophones, the Harper Conservatives want to sever a long-standing relationships with Alternatives, the Montreal international development group with a worldwide reputation (and an important partner of rabble.ca).
With the Harper government speeding up the process initiated by the previous Conservative Mulroney government in 1984 (and followed by subsequent Liberal governments) of attacking social policy measures, and de-funding groups that are critical of government, the CSLS reports will be more valuable than ever, hélas.
Duncan Cameron writes from France.
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