By Donella Meadows
–June 5, 1986–
Suppose that each year there were an award for the World’s Best Nation. If you were one of the judges, how would you make your decision? Would you rank nations by their wealth, or their military power, or their civil liberties? By lawfulness? By cleanliness of the environment?
The question is not trivial. People and governments do, consciously or unconsciously, rank nations on many different value scales. Those rankings have an enormous influence on social decisions about how to spend government money, about what laws and regulations are needed, about where to direct human energy.
The most widely accepted index of the achievement of a nation is the Gross National Product (GNP) per capita. Governments quote it, pride themselves on it, do all they can to make it go up, and look embarrassed when it goes down. But few people are really quite sure what GNP per capita means.
The GNP is the total amount of money spent in a year by the country’s consumers on all goods and services. The GNP per capita is the GNP divided by the population; it is the money value of the stuff that passes though an average person’s life in a year — where “stuff” includes food, shoes, cars, dentist bills, legal fees, and that person’s share of bureaucrats’ salaries and the defense budget.
Per capita GNP is roughly related to real human welfare, but only roughly. It counts only those aspects of life that can be measured in money terms, and only consumption that is cash-mediated. If you grow vegetables at home instead of buying them in a store, for instance, the GNP goes down though the quality of your life may go up. GNP includes some bads as well as goods — automobile accidents increase GNP, because they increase hospital expenses, repair bills, car purchases, and insurance premiums. And per capita GNP says nothing about the equity of the distribution of goods over the population.
To illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of GNP per capita as a measure of a nation’s quality, here are the ten top winners in the Best Nation Competition for 1985, as measured by GNP per capita:
GNP per capita
|1. United Arab Emirates||$21,340|
|6. United States||$14,090|
|9. Saudi Arabia||$12,180|
The four Middle Eastern countries that top this list produce a lot of oil and spend a lot of money each year, but that money does not necessarily reach all citizens or buy a high quality of life.
Some international organizations, including UNICEF and The Hunger Project, rank nations by a very different index — the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR). The IMR expresses how many babies, out of every 1000 born, die before they reach their first birthday.
The United Arab Emirates, first on the GNP per capita list, has a mediocre IMR of 45. That means 45 babies out of a thousand die during the first year of life. By comparison, Saudi Arabia has an IMR of 103 — a loss of one baby in ten. The IMR of the United States is 10.5 — one baby in one hundred does not survive to age one. The world’s highest IMR’s are in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia — all around 200.
The Infant Mortality Rate is perhaps the most sensitive single measure of a society’s quality of life. It reflects the general level of nutrition and health care. It is affected by water quality, by the quality of housing, and by the level of education, especially education of women. It shows the nation’s concern for its most ordinary and helpless citizens, its babies.
A high GNP per capita is usually associated with a low IMR, but not always. Libya, with a GNP per capita of $7500 has a shamefully high IMR of 92. And conversely, China has one of the lowest per capita GNP’s in the world — $290 — but also an amazingly low IMR — 38. That puts China in the same league with the much richer Soviet Union, which has a GNP per capita of $6350 and an IMR of 32.
If we awarded the 1985 Ten Best Nations prize on the basis of IMR, only four of the GNP per capita winners would make the list — and the United States would not be among them:
All these countries are relatively rich in material consumption, though material consumption is not necessarily their highest priority. All invest heavily in human services, and distribute those services fairly equitably. All of them have low birth rates — the kind of society that cares for its babies does not seem to generate runaway population growth. All have stable governments and relatively high levels of democracy and civil rights. This may be as acceptable a list of the Ten Best Countries, at least by my set of values, as any single indicator could produce.
Imagine a world in which nations competed not to build the biggest weapons or the biggest Gross National Products, but to take the best possible care of their babies.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986