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Measuring Multidimensional Well-being and Sustainable Development

13 January 2016
by Guest author

NAECMartine Durand, OECD Chief Statistician and Director of Statistics Directorate, and Simon Scott, Counsellor in the OECD Statistics Directorate

The notion of sustainable development is profoundly multidimensional so assessing progress on sustainable development requires measures of multidimensional well-being. The number and diversity of the new Sustainable Development Goals and targets reflect the many dimensions of development (health, decent work, climate, etc.), and policy thinking must integrate these dimensions if progress is to be achieved across the board.

The OECD has long recognised the multidimensionality of people’s well-being and of the resources needed to sustain it over time. Realising that measures of total output are not adequate to assess progress in all its complexity, we have been actively researching relevant new measures of well-being and prosperity, and developing policies designed to improve people’s lives on a sustainable basis.

This effort has intensified and gained new traction in recent years as well-being has failed to improve in tandem with economic growth, leaving some people behind and exacerbating inequalities. The growing disconnect between the health of economies, as measured by GDP growth rates, and people’s experiences and perceptions of their lives has given rise to a new measurement and policy agenda to identify well-being indicators that can signal whether societies are evolving in desirable directions and at a sustainable pace.

The OECD has played a major role in this effort, in particular by developing a multidimensional well-being framework that can both gauge whether people’s lives are improving, and inform policy efforts toward this end. The framework also aims to indicate whether improvements are sustainable, and where governments and others need to invest to improve well-being now and tomorrow.

In 2011 the OECD launched its Better Life Initiative to measure progress on 11 dimensions of current well-being: health status; work and life balance; education and skills; social connections; civic engagement and governance; environmental quality; personal security; income and wealth; jobs and earnings; housing; and subjective well-being. The eleven dimensions are recognised as universal, i.e. relevant to societies across the world, irrespective of their level of socio-economic and human development. The framework focuses on people, takes distribution into account, includes both objective and subjective elements, and concentrates on outcomes as opposed to inputs and outputs.

The framework also considers resources for future well-being, thus bringing in a sustainability perspective. In particular, the OECD approach focuses on the broader natural, economic, human and social systems that embed and sustain individual well-being over time. The focus on stocks of “capital” or resources is in line with the recommendations of the Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi Report (2009) and other recent measurement initiatives that distinguish between well-being “here and now” and the stocks of resources that can affect the well-being of future generations “later”. Several approaches go beyond simply measuring levels of stocks to consider how these are managed, maintained or threatened. Recognising the global challenges and shared responsibilities to maintain well-being over time, they also highlight how actions taken in one country can affect the well-being of people in other countries (“elsewhere”).

The OECD well-being framework and the SDGs are highly consistent, not only in their general features – focusing on people, multidimensionality, today and tomorrow, here and elsewhere – but even in their specific dimensions.

Because of these close linkages, the OECD work on well-being can be particularly useful in helping countries deliver on the SDGs agenda:

  • From a measurement perspective, the OECD framework and indicators can pinpoint specific data sets to monitor national and regional progress towards targets in OECD countries, especially where the official SDGs indicator set may be more relevant for emerging and developing economies and/or for global monitoring.
  • From a policy perspective, the framework covers several areas relevant for the SDGs where the OECD has specific long-standing expertise and instruments to offer (health, education, environment, jobs, etc.).
  • From a coherence perspective, the framework embodies a recognition that many dimensions are related and therefore must be studied together and not in isolation. This has already been central to establishing the OECD Inclusive Growth policy framework which aims to nail down the interdependencies at the policy level.


In order to make the concept of well-being more policy-actionable, work is under way to study the drivers of well-being, i.e. the policies and the individual and societal characteristics shaping each of the outcomes of interest. In addition, to help policy makers to better grasp policy trade-offs and find ways to improve both the level and distribution of well-being outcomes, the OECD has built new measures of “multidimensional living standards” that integrate the multidimensionality of the Better Life framework with a focus on the distribution of income and non-income dimensions of well-being.

The interest of such an approach lies in providing an explicit link to key structural policies and their effects on various income groups, making it possible to estimate the impact of policy packages with ambiguous net effects on the well-being of the various segments of the population. For example, both stricter climate mitigation policies and extending health insurance through higher tax may improve health outcomes but reduce household income, with the net well-being effects depending on the relative elasticities of income and health to these policy changes. Work has started in the OECD to quantify these impacts, so that net results can be seen through the multidimensional living standards metric. This approach is flexible and can be easily adapted to the SDGs framework. It provides opportunities to identify the best policy measures to reach several goals at the same time – a key challenge posed by the multidimensional character of the SDGs.

Useful links

OECD Better Life Initiative

OECD work on statistics

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