Beyond GDP: New Approaches to Measuring Well-Being

Feasta co-founder Richard Douthwaite was one of the first to identify serious problems with GDP as a measure of economic welfare and there is now increasing and broadening interest throughout the world in alternative measures of progress to GDP. Although there have been several initiatives in Ireland going back in time, we still lag significantly behind other countries. The Feasta initiative started in 2015 in Ireland. It is grounded in the writing of Richard Douthwaite and collaboration he initiated with Germany.

This graph by the German research group FEST shows the relationship between GDP (in red) and well-being in Germany from 1991 to 2014. Source: /pdf/p_imk_study_48_2016.pdf p15
This graph from FEST shows the relationship between GDP (in red) and well-being (in blue) in Germany from 1991 to 2014. Source: /pdf/p_imk_study_48_2016.pdf p15. Please click to enlarge.

Feasta is working closely with the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research (FEST) and Alfred-Weber-Institute for Economics, University of Heidelberg. The technical work in Ireland is led by Professor John Sweeney, and he is supported by Feasta colleagues Willi Kiefel and Seán Ó Conláin.

The work in Germany, which is led by Professor Hans Diefenbacher and his team, has involved the development of a composite indicator based on the ISEW approach (Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare).

Regular progress meetings took place throughout 2016 in order to develop the index in Ireland. Irish data is currently being collected both in Ireland and in Germany. As soon as this has been quality checked, an initial comparison at high level of Irish and German data will be possible, as will a comparison of the index with the evolution of GDP. FEST have compiled a significant range of data at both Bundes and Regional levels, and this provides rich material for analysis, discussion and policy formulation.

Feasta have also been involved with an IEN and Social Justice Ireland initiative to bring the concept of well-being to a local level in Ireland through the PPNs (Public Participation Networks). Many Feasta members are actively involved in PPNs so it was doubly significant that we contributed to the workshop by the IEN/Social Justice Ireland Wellbeing Reference Group on 26th September 2016.

One of the challenges for the above work is to integrate the emerging emphasis on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As yet there does not appear to be a common platform for sharing and comparing metrics for the goals.

There is an ever-growing sense of depth and complexity, but also of widespread interest both at national and local levels. Our progress has been consistent but slow for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it is a totally voluntary activity. If you are interested in finding out more about the project, please contact Seán Ó Conláin at planxty [AT]

A summary of FEST’s latest findings in English (from April 2016) is online here.

In October 2017 we published a preliminary report here.

In collaboration with the Cork Environmental Forum we organised a webinar on June 5 2020 called “Beyond GDP: Governance and Budgeting for Well-being” (video below). Speakers included a representative from FEST, the chief statistician of Wales, and a representative of the Irish Central Statistics Office. There were approximately 125 attendees from Ireland and several other countries.

You can read an overview of some of the efforts to measure and budget for well-being in various countries around the world here:

In June 2020 Feasta joined the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, and the Well-being Group is aiding in the development of a Wellbeing Economy Hub in Ireland.

In February 2021, Well-being Group member Seán Ó Conláin was nominated by the Environmental Pillar to represent the environmental sector in an Expert and Stakeholder Group which was formed by the National Economic and Social Council (NESC). NESC formed the group in order to provide a vehicle for Irish government consultation with stakeholders concerning the development of a comprehensive well-being framework for Ireland. Further information on the work of NESC in this area, and on the Expert and Stakeholder Group, can be found here.