Deprioritise economic growth, as measured by GDP
Deprioritise economic growth, as measured by GDP, as a means of measuring national wellbeing, and decisively shift the focus of policy and spending decisions to the pursuit of richer measures of national wellbeing, including the protection of the environment.
For too long, in Scotland and globally, measurement of a nation’s progress has been dominated by the pursuit of growth, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), irrespective of how carbon-intensive that growth is, or who benefits from it.86 Too often, it is seen as a goal in and of itself, rather than a means of delivering societal outcomes. It has long been and is increasingly acknowledged that GDP is a problematic and poor measurement of success, yet GDP seems, if anything, to be tightening its grip on decision making.87 The vested interests of leaders within governments and the private sector who have, and continue to gain, from the status quo are seemingly too powerful.
Internationally, the European Parliament held a useful ‘Beyond Growth’ conference in May 202388 but alternatives to GDP are mostly on paper only. There is near global consensus that GDP is not fit for purpose yet huge amounts of academic and policy attention have not succeeded in producing much more than paper tigers with a few notable, but relatively small-scale, and still developing, exceptions.
Scotland’s National Performance Framework (NPF) is one such example – it is a step in the right direction. But Scotland’s journey is far from complete. The NPF can and should provide us with an alternative narrative that shifts the emphasis away from GDP. By doing this, the framework has the potential to do much more to support the transition to a wellbeing economy.
At the time of writing, the Scottish Government is undertaking its quinquennial review of the National Outcomes, creating an opportunity to enhance and clarify the overarching purpose of the NPF as Scotland’s ‘National Wellbeing Framework.’ This should build on the welcome addition during the last review in 2018 of the ‘purpose’ statements, and specifically the aim to: “increase the wellbeing of people living in Scotland.” Critically, there should be meaningful differentiation between this core purpose and the means of achieving it. Specifically, the current aim “to create sustainable and inclusive growth” is a means to support national wellbeing, not an end in itself, and it therefore has no place in the purpose statement. The existing focus on GDP-growth is directly driving the very policies, practices and behaviours that are pushing the world towards greater human exploitation and environmental catastrophe.
Furthermore, the way performance within the NPF is categorised as ‘maintaining’, ‘worsening’ or ‘improving’ is also, at times, misleading and unhelpful. This is particularly true for climate related indicators which have continuously shown an ‘improving’ rating. While it is true that Scotland’s emissions are falling, the Scottish Government has missed eight out of the last twelve annual emission reduction targets. This is creating a perverse mismatch between missed emission reduction targets and the National Indicator used within the NPF. This risks creating a perception that the Scottish Government is seeking to paint an overly positive picture. To resolve this, indicators of progress must be linked to the delivery of the statutory targets.
Alongside the review of the national outcomes, the former Deputy First Minister John Swinney pointed towards the upcoming Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill (see section 2.1.2) as a vehicle to strengthen the role of the NPF and to narrow the distance between the national outcomes and their implementation.
The Scottish Government should:
- more fully acknowledge the social and environmental harm of perusing policies of exponential and endless economic growth
- review inconsistencies in its economic and environmental policies around growth
- begin a national conversation on the potential merits of post-growth measures and how they could be acted on
Multidimensional wellbeing indicators (including reductions in environmental damage and restoring biodiversity) should be prioritised, rather than GDP growth for its own sake (or as a proxy for other goals with the assumption that GDP growth will automatically bring attainment of these goals). Ideally, this change would include developing a headline measure of progress beyond GDP growth that represents the broader concerns of human and ecological wellbeing.
This is a critical step to achieve progress in reducing multiple inequalities.
For further information:
- Radical Pathways Beyond GDP: Why and how we need to pursue feminist and decolonial alternatives urgently, Oxfam, August 2023, https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/radicalpathways- beyond-gdp-621532/
- Briefing on the member’s bill being developed by Sarah Boyack MSP, ahead of the Scottish Government introducing its own Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill, Oxfam, March 2023, https://oxfam.box.com/s/8meitezd3myofaxyzgzlgzv04f9hlsiv
- An Economy for the 99%, Oxfam, 2017, https://www-cdn.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/ bp-economy-for-99-percent-160117-en.pdf 2021-2026
- Policy Priorities for Scotland, SIDA, 2021, https://www.intdevalliance.scot/how-wehelp/ 2021-scottish-election
- See also ‘An ambitious and impactful Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Act’ in the Cross-cutting policies chapter.
An Economy for the 99%, Oxfam, 2017, https://www-cdn.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/bp-economy-for-99-percent-160117-en.pdf
For instance, as far back as 1968 Robert Kennedy said that GNP (the US version of GDP) “measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”
The European Parliament ‘Beyond Growth’ conference: https://earth4all.life/events/beyond-growth-conference/ and research paper: Beyond growth – pathways towards sustainable prosperity, European Parliament, May 2023, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/ etudes/STUD/2023/747108/EPRS_STU(2023)747108_EN.pdf