Human wellbeing must be included in national accounts

Today, development can no longer be measured solely in economic models that show improvement in material consumption but rather on progress in sustaining human wellbeing, says Elizabeth Kahurani


Sustainable wellbeing on a national and global scale largely involves accounting that includes ecosystem services and the natural capital that produces them.

Woman resting with fruit

Human wellbeing needs to be taken into account when assessing progress

In what can only be said to be a paradigm shift, Prof Robert Costanza from the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, told scientists gathered at the 6th Annual International Ecosystem Services Partnership conference in Bali, Indonesia, 26–30 August 2013, that current economic models that rely on measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are no longer applicable in our context and potentially give a false impression of progress.

‘Growth-based GDP economic models misleadingly count natural capital depletion and many human and social costs as economic gain’, said Costanza. ‘This was relevant in the past when natural capital was abundant and there was a lack of built capital and in understanding that natural resources have limits’.

He noted that things have changed since the period after World War II when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were established to speed up economic growth. Today, it is apparent that our natural ecosystem has ‘non-negotiable limits’ and in the quest for economic growth and development we must identify the planet’s ‘safe boundaries’ within which we must confine operations. Citing evidence, Costanza showed that humanity has exceeded limits, leading to climate change and massive loss of biodiversity.

As a solution, he pointed to the need for policies that account for ecological life-support systems and their interaction with human, social and built capital.

‘In a global context, we have to understand, manage and design human interactions with the rest of nature to create a sustainable and desirable future’, he said.

He was speaking at a special session at the conference where scientists working with the United Nations Environment Programme’s Project for Ecosystem Services (ProEcoServ) were presenting reports on the efforts to integrate the concept embracing ecosystem services with conventional development planning across different scales in Viet Nam, Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, and South Africa. In these four pilot countries, ProEcoServe is working to develop practical tools,  such as GIS ecosystem services maps, to achieve this goal and at the same time targeting policy and decision-making processes where these tools can be applied.

In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the project has been providing data to update the country’s 1984 National Spatial Development Plan and efforts are continuing to introduce experimental ecosystem services’ accounting into national accounts.

‘This is critical in a country in which the footprint vastly exceeds bio-capacity because of land-use and land-cover changes; and in a situation where research is insufficient, policies are not consistent and communities are excluded’, said Keisha Garcia, ProEcoServe Country Manager in Trinidad and Tobago.

In South Africa, the project is seeking to influence local policies in order to minimize hazards and risks, such as floods, fires and storms, in one municipality. Innovative means have been employed, including working with stakeholders such as private insurance companies that are financially exposed to these risks. In Viet Nam, the project has contributed to various national policy documents, while in Chile the challenge remains being accepted and working with the local authorities that wield strong constitutional authority and power, as well as overcoming mistrust between the various stakeholders.

The ProEcoServe project is spearheading these initial efforts with the aim of expanding to other countries and ensuring that indicators on development and economic growth account for ecosystem services and give a true measure of sustainable human wellbeing.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


Watch an interview with Prof Costanza


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The conference is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry‘s component on landscape management for environmental services, biodiversity conservation and livelihoods






Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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