Measuring the Well-being of Canadians: Does GDP Tell the Full Story?

Measuring the Well-being of Canadians: Does GDP Tell the Full Story?
December 14, 2018

Dr. Nafeesa Jalal, PhD Public Health, University of the Western Cape, South Africa; Lead Consultant, N. Jalal Global Consulting, Toronto, Canada; Talk Show Host - Health & Wellness with Dr. Nafeesa Jalal

Dr. Nafeesa Jalal

In 2011 I went to Bangladesh on a contract funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs. I worked in 100 villages on a large maternal health project. Even though I was born there and to Bangladeshi parents – who proudly instilled the language and culture in me despite the fact that we lived all over the world – I had never before worked in Bangladesh.

I had also never worked in the public health sector before. The experience opened up my eyes to the extensive health challenges people were facing across the country. Each day I was reminded of how fundamental health is to all, and how linked it is to the social, economic and political spheres of people’s lives. The health of women and rural populations deserved unique attention, which it was not adequately receiving.

While I did not know it at the time, this was the beginning of my career in public health. The experiences that followed included leading health-focused non-profits in Canada, consulting on health projects, consuming myself with health research both locally and overseas, and of course earning a PhD in Public Health. It also included attending and presenting at local and international health conferences.

The Canadian Conference on Global Health (CCGH), which took place from Nov 19 – 21, was held in Toronto. Not only was it in my city, but it was also the first time I got to present my completed Doctoral research.

I love global conferences for the sheer fact that they are long days packed with diverse, passionate, informed people from all over the world sharing knowledge, research, opinions, challenges, solutions … and hope. The CCGH offered no less.

One session that particularly caught my attention was titled Conceptualizing and Measuring Wellbeing in the Face of Rapid Change on a Global Scale, led by the conference’s co-Chair Susan Elliot. It discussed global measurements of well-being, and brought a very important question to light – is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country its only and best indicator of well-being?

Decade after decade, it appears to me that we have been using GDP as a primary measure of the well-being of a country’s population. When the GDP of a country increases, an automatic assumption is frequently made that the people of that country are now better off in all areas of their lives.

A research participant at this session from a lower to middle income country (LMIC) in Africa said, “We hear about GDP, but we do not feel it.”

This reminds and clarifies for us that economic growth does not automatically translate into better lives for people. The economic benefits of any country do not trickle down equitably to all those who need it. Some countries seeing higher GDP figures may also be experiencing widening gaps between the rich and the poor, and the increased wealth may be concentrated in a certain part of the population, not reaching those who need it most. Furthermore, research has repeatedly shown that finances alone are not an indicator of well-being for all people.

The Canadian Index of Well-being (CIW) was shared in this session, and seemed to be a completely new conversation for many in attendance. Having been created to provide a more comprehensive picture of what well-being means to people across the country, this was the perfect platform to highlight it. The CIW contains eight domains that focus on key aspects of life identified by Canadians themselves as contributing to their well-being: community vitality, democratic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure and culture, living standards, and time use.

Ronald Labonté, Canada Research Chair in Contemporary Globalization and Health Equity with the University of Ottawa was also at this session and shared that while we do not need to get rid of GDP -since an economic indicator is important - we do need to ‘de-throne’ it and move from economic growth to economic prosperity for all. I could not have agreed more.

GDP alone does not seem to tell the full story of well-being for populations in Canada and/or across the globe. If we are to comprehensively and inclusively understand and strive for a healthy amount of well-being among our populations, we need to familiarize ourselves with the CIW and make it as widespread of an indicator as GDP has been for many decades.

No longer can economic measures be the only measurement used to determine the quality of our lives.