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FORUM2015: Economic and Social Development Should Share the Spotlight

FORUM2015: Economic and Social Development Should Share the Spotlight

April 19, 2015 | 3291 views

THU, APRIL 16, 2015; 10:00 – 11:15

By Patrick Beattie

At first glance, today’s talk might have seemed better suited for the Oxford Union, Oxford’s famed debate hall. Indeed, it seemed like a debate of public good versus business savvy.

On one side of the panel sat Paul Farmer, a tireless global healthcare practitioner known for refusing to entertain hand-wringing discussions of cost-benefit, and Diana Good, head of the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact. On the other side sat Eduarda la Rocque, former Secretary of Finance for the city of Rio de Janeiro, and Michael Porter, the father of 1980’s cut-throat corporate strategy.

Of course, like all first takes, this over-simplifies things – Farmer does care about sustainability and maximizing impact; la Rocque is now the president of the Instituto Pereira Passos, supporting social development; and Porter, who let pass the friendly jabs from Farmer and moderator Michael Green regarding Porter’s competitive corporate mindset, was there to present his recent work on the Social Progress Index (SPI).

Still, a group that could have easily been assumed to hold irreconcilable views on the relative merits of economic and social development showed surprising unity in proclaiming that it is time for both tracks to share the spotlight.

As presented by Porter, the commonly-held belief that with economic development comes social development, so one need only focus on economic development and the rest sorts itself out. That belief, which always seemed alien to most of us working in the social space, has proved false.

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In fact, the situation is more complex, with social development affecting economic development and vice versa. And when social development is ignored at the expense of economic development, instability arises. This can manifest as political instability or increased susceptibility to disease outbreaks. Farmer contrasted Sierra Leone and Liberia to Rwanda; the former countries invested heavily in economic growth, but not their health systems, and were unable to effectively respond to the Ebola crisis.

Porter then presented the SPI, an attempt at quantifying social development. This is an obvious step for a business school professor – if it’s important, it needs to be measured, because if it can’t be measured, we can’t take action.

There will undoubtedly be disagreement about the SPI and the judgements that go into the numbers. However, it should be remembered that GDP, the stalwart of economic development measurement, is a relatively recent invention that can be calculated many different ways.

In the end, the more important factor here is that the SPI gives us a benchmark. A benchmark, even a mildly imperfect one, provides information that can be published and referenced in debates, pushing governments to improve and strive for growth that benefits the economy and society. As la Rocque put it, “qualified and shared information equals power for transformation.”

Recognition that social progress needs to be balanced with economic progress for both to be sustainable is a good start, but the question of how to ensure this happens remains. In many ways, that’s the question that the SPI is trying to answer. Sharing the spotlight means balanced awareness and appreciation, and that is only achieved with balanced qualified information. The SPI is a good step towards this.

Of course, there are questions that remain. Proving correlation between social and economic development is one thing, but proving causation – that social development can, in fact, lead to improved economic development – is another.

Farmer replies, “Who cares?” While I’m not ready to be so cavalier, in a way I agree. The value of social progress to stability is clear, and whether social development leads to economic development or not, social progress needs to be measured so that action can be taken. As Porter said, wrapping up his talk, “We can’t leave improving society to chance.”


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