How Governance Drives Well-Being

An Interview with Nobel Laureate A. Michael Spence


For decades, GDP was the measure of all things. Government leaders relied heavily on GDP growth—or the lack thereof—as a barometer of their policies' success. But over the past several years, measures such as well-being (essentially, the quality of life in a given country) have taken on increasing importance. Among the most vocal supporters of that broader view is A. Michael Spence, Nobel laureate and professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

As chairman of the Commission on Growth and Development from 2006 to 2010, Spence helped lead an effort to understand which policies and strategies drive rapid and sustained economic growth and poverty reduction. This effort was based on the view that rising prosperity and expanding economic opportunity create the opportunity to address difficult challenges such as environmental degradation, poverty, and the wide disparity in living standards within and across countries.

Spence's work underscores one of his core beliefs, that governance and smart policymaking play a critical role in raising levels of well-being. In 2001, he was the winner—along with economists George A. Akerlof and Joseph E. Stiglitz—of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for work in the area of asymmetric information. Recently, Spence and BCG senior partner Douglas Beal met to discuss the increasing attention being paid worldwide to well-being, the critical role of governance in raising living standards, and what government leaders can do to maximize the impact of their policies. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.


Global Community 


World Health Organization: Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health (Website) 


World Health Organization: CLOSING THE GAP: Policy Into Practice on Social Determinants of Health (Paper 2008)



Better Life Initiative: Measuring Well-Being and Progress   Are our lives getting better? How can policies improve our lives? Are we measuring the right things? The OECD Better Life Initiative and the work program on Measuring Well-Being and Progress answer these questions. They allow understanding what drives the well-being of people and nations and what needs to be done to achieve greater progress for all. 


Better Life Index: This Index allows you to compare well-being across countries, based on 11 topics the OECD has identified as essential, in the areas of material living conditions and quality of life.


Pan American Health Organization: Regional Briefing on the Social Determinants of Health in the Americas (PDF 2012)


UK Office of National Well-being: Measuring well-being


ONS is developing new measures of national well-being. The aim is to provide a fuller picture of how society is doing by supplementing existing economic, social and environmental measures. Developing better measures of well-being is a long-term program. ONS is committed to sharing ideas and proposals widely to ensure that the measures are relevant and founded on what matters to people.


United States: Federal Government  

United States: Civil society  

A gathering place for stories illustrating community investment — creating neighborhoods that promote health and wellbeing for all. Produced by the Build Healthy Places Network.


Aetna Foundation: Creating a healthier world

We work to promote better nutrition and physical activity, enhance health equity and advance innovations that enable better health.

The Aetna Foundation is dedicated to improving health in local communities and large populations alike. How do we make it happen? Through community-based programs, dynamic partnerships and proven models that can help people accelerate progress everywhere.


Building a Culture of Health

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation today announced the seven communities selected to receive the 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize. Chosen from nearly 200 communities across the country, the following Prize-winning communities reflect a Culture of Health vision in action



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