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Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the standard measure for the value added generated by the production of goods and services in an economy over a specific time period – the total value of all goods and services produced in a country minus the value of the goods and services required for their production. But is it enough to measure a country’s development?  

This measure can be divided by the country’s population, returning the amount of money that each individual gets in a particular country, known as GDP per capita, which provides a much better determination of living standards as compared to GDP alone, allowing comparisons between countries of different sizes. 

GDP per capita per country in 2020

Since it is simpler to quantify the production of commodities and services rather than measure other welfare accomplishments using a multi-dimensional index, GDP is the most commonly used indicator to gauge economic growth. However, it is not a sufficient indicator of development on its own. Development is a multifaceted idea, with not only an economic component but also a social and environmental one that should just as well be taken into account.

Economist view 

Thomas Piketty, renown professor and French economist, states that future economic downturns brought on by technological or populational reductions would most likely result in enormous concentrations of economic and political power as the richest individuals amass more capital (or wealth). In line with this, he claims that inequality is rooted in ideology and politics and argues that his beliefs explain the fundamental flaws in capitalism’s market system. Given this, Piketty says it cannot be expected that sustainable development would always result from an increasing GDP.

Thomas Piketty argues against using GDP growth as synonym for development

Other economists have also weighed in on the topic, as exemplified by Nobel Prize-winning economist Simon Kuznets´s view that GDP should not be used as a gauge for “the welfare of a nation”.

Moreover, Nancy Folbre, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, once said that “Time that you spend taking care of your kids is very valuable time, but it doesn’t get factored into GDP.” According to Folbre, about half of the time people spend working, on average, is unpaid work which is not accounted for in GDP. She thus states that the GDP measurement will only be able to provide an estimation of a portion of the overall economic picture that is regularly taken into account.

Alternate measures

As an alternative to GDP per capita, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), The World Bank, and the non-profit Social Progress Imperative, launched, respectively, the Human Development Index (HDI), the Human Capital Index (HCI) and the Social Progressive Index (SPI).

The Human Development Index

The Human Development Index (HDI), an indicator of the multi-dimensional aspect of development, incorporates the conventional approach to measuring growth in the economy while accounting as well for education and health, which are key factors in determining how developed a society is. This is determined by taking the geometric mean of the GDP per capita, the life expectancy at birth, and the average of the mean and expected school years.

Human Development Index per country in 2017

The Human Capital Index

The Human Capital Index (HCI) ranks 157 countries on a set of four health and education indicators. The main advantage is that, unlike GDP, it emphasizes output rather than input. For instance, the weighting of educational quality in relation to school years is better when it is determined by actual adjusted learning. The main criticism of the HCI is that it might overvalue the tangible advantages of health and education, commoditizing people instead of valuing their contributions to society and inherent status as fundamental human rights. However, it is anticipated that the HCI will be used primarily by developing countries to quantify the outcomes of social sector investments, leading to increased expenses on human development, which the World Bank claims has been overlooked in favor of infrastructure and institutional development.

The Social Progress Index

The SPI is arguably a more accurate metric for assessing societal development. Created by the non-profit organization Social Progress Imperative, the SPI is one of the main achievements of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. The Commission’s main goal was to look into alternative metrics to the one-dimensional GDP measure for measuring a nation’s wealth and social development. Despite only having data for the past four years, this indicator is still relatively new and covers more than 130 nations.  

The SPI is an improvement over the HDI because it increases the number of composite indicators from four to fifty-four in a variety of areas, including fundamental human needs, well-being pillars, and advancement opportunities. This index can therefore synthesize the most important factors that influence development. As an illustration, it considers the availability of water and sanitation, education and health outcomes, public crime, housing, information access, and communication, among others. Naturally, the SPI’s primary flaw is that it is comparatively complicated and impractical to use in informing policy decisions.

Social Progress Index per country in 2021

Weakness of GDP – Examples

The biggest weaknesses that are attributed to GDP target the fact that it solely considers average income, hence failing to reflect how most people actually live or who benefits from economic expansion. Many crucial elements that affect well-being are not included in how much consumable material things people produce, such as a healthy environment and good physical condition. 

For instance, an oil spill can raise GDP because it costs money to clean it up, but it also has a negative impact on the environment. Besides this, GDP includes the value of the sugar-sweetened beverages we sell without deducting the health issues they cause. In a similar fashion, it counts the number of cars we make without accounting for the amount of emissions they produce, and adds up the cost of developing new cities without deducting the cost of replacing vital forests.

Moreover, there is concrete evidence, such as the data from The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which reports that the UK’s annual GDP growth averaged just under 2% from 2009 to 2019. In contrast, over that ten-year period, income inequality rose by 2.2%, and in the year ending March 2020, the ONS’s annual average ratings of life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety all declined. Despite GDP growth, the trend of rising income inequality shows that not everyone is benefiting from it or living a prosperous life, proving that GDP is a poor indicator of citizens’ well-being.


Although GDP is a rough indicator of a society’s standard of living, it does not directly consider leisure, health, education, environment, changes in income inequality, advances in technology or the importance that society may place on different types of output, be that positive or negative.

The World´s Happiest Countries (2015)

All aspects of the standards of living, whether they are purchased and sold on the open market or not, have an impact on people’s happiness, and that is why GDP is not a perfect measure for a country’s development. Given this, the HDI, the HCI and particularly the SPI, have come to try to solve some of the concerns raised over GDP´s accuracy, adding important information on a country´s development levels.

Sources: International Growth Centre, Scientific American, Our World in Data

Mariana Gomes

Joana Brás

Leonor Cunha

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