Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

On Tuesday 24 November, Social Justice Ireland hosted their annual social policy conference in Croke Park. One of the papers presented at it, entitled “Beyond GDP: Measuring Ireland’s Progress in the 21st Century”, was later published on their website. In it, Prof. Charles Clarke and Dr Catherine Kavanagh present an Index for Social Progress (ISP). The index shows that Ireland’s social progress may not, as one would initially believe, be inherently tied to GDP or economic growth.

The authors commented:

“Economic growth can mean more incomes, more jobs, and more housing, but it can also mean more income for the very rich, more jobs that do not pay a living wage, and more debt. Rising inequality and hidden and ignored environmental and social costs can mask the reality behind the headline statistics of economic growth.

They commented further:

“GDP is a measure of market transactions and there are many aspects of social well-being that exist outside of market relationships, and thus do not get captured by GDP”[ii] .

The Index covers a period between 1995 and 2012, with some indicators between 2004 and 2012 examined distinctly (based on information available to the team). This is in addition to a similar index created in 1996 that charted Ireland’s social health. The score given is to show Irish performance in the time period, based on how Ireland has performed in the past, not in comparison with other countries. A score of 100 shows that Ireland has performed to its highest standard; numbers below 100 show a decline from the best position.

In this ISP, the following indicators were used, focusing on different stages of life.[iii]

Stage of Life Indicator
Children Infant mortalityChild poverty

Children in foster care

Youth Teenage suicideTeenage pregnancy

School retention rate

Adult Unemployment rateAverage wages

Alcohol consumption

Drug offences

Old Aged Poverty among the elderlyLife expectancy of over 65s

All Ages

HomicidesTraffic fatalities

Medical Card coverage

Household debt

Social housing expenditure

Net migration


The real purpose of economic policy, according to the authors, is “improving societal well-being”[iv].

The index model from 1996, which covered the period between 1977 and 1994[v], was based on a model by the Fordham University Institute for Innovation and Social Policy in the US. Results showed that there was very little social progress over the time.[vi]

An indicator of net migration was added to the current index, due to its relevance in the Irish context. This would not have been included in the Fordham model. Over the period between 1995 and 2012, there was an average increase in the index score increase of 3.6%. It rose from 32.6 in 1995 to 59.8 in 2012.[vii]

However, the report found that, despite the general rise in the ISP, it is consistently lower than GDP during the same period. In contrast to 2012’s ISP score of 59.8, GDP at the same time was 72.8. Therefore, raising economic scores do not always correlate to improvements in the quality of life for the people of Ireland. This is especially concerning for the authors, as the study includes the Celtic Tiger boom years. While there has been progress in the current index, Director of Social Justice Ireland, Dr Sean Healy, noted that “Ireland’s services and infrastructure are consistently the poor relation no matter what is happening in the economy”, as they are always behind GDP.

The model for the full period, 1995—2012, does not include the following indicators:

  • Child poverty,
  • Poverty among the elderly,
  • Social housing needs,
  • Income inequality, and
  • Household financial stability.[viii]

In the date range 2004—2012, both elderly and child poverty, low pay, drug offences, and income inequality were included. While this model saw sharp increases between 2004—2008, it then dropped from 61 to 49 in the latter four years.[ix]

Some of the following key changes were highlighted, during the period in question:

  • Elderly life expectancy, teenage pregnancy and infant mortality, road traffic death, and school retention rates have all improved;
  • The number of children now in foster care, medical card coverage, and the level of household debt have all worsened;
  • Unemployment rose from 2008, and peaked in 2012. It is now receding;
  • Spending on social housing is falling from its peak in 2007; and
  • Net migration began to rise in 2009.[x]


  • Risk of poverty peaked in 2001, and has declined since; and
  • Youth unemployment has increased a significant amount since 2008.[xi]


  • “Under 5 mortality rates, deaths due to chronic diseases, teenage pregnancy and road traffic deaths, all improved and reached their best year in 2012”;
  • The presence of females in legislator positions, senior official positions and as managers improved; and
  • The number of homicides peaked in 2007 but have been falling consistently for the remainder. [xii]

Indicators such as gender wage gap and corruption measures would preferably have been included, but there was no relevant information available for the specified time period.[xiii] The authors note that their report is not a total picture of Irish society, stating that the “incompleteness comes from data limitations”[xiv].

The report also concerns itself heavily with the impact of social progress on the environment. When environmental factors are taken into account, there is an upward movement in the model between 1995—2007, when it stagnates (but does not stop). This is attributed to the positive moves made by recent Governments in environmental policy. However, it is still notably below GDP.

Clarke and Kavanagh are not optimistic about the future of Ireland’s social health. The figures supplied in the report “suggest that since 2007, the social health of Ireland has declined and continues to decline even as GDP stabilises.”[xv] However, the report supports a good start-off point for improvement that focus on the multifaceted nature of humans, a policy that focuses on human beings and not simply market power. “Compared with GDP and the ISEQ (Irish Stock Exchange Index), we argued that our [ISP] better reflected how the average person and family were doing in Ireland”[xvi], and thus is a good place to start when looking at human-based policy because “[r]eal humans are multidimensional, as are the economic and social processes that make up the economy”[xvii].


[i] “Beyond GDP: Measuring Ireland’s Progress in the 21st Century”, pg 1. Available at:
[ii] pg 9
[iii] pg 19
[iv] pg 1
[v] Also Clarke and Kavanagh, 1996.
[vi] pg 18
[vii] pg 18
[viii] pg 19
[ix] pg 20
[x] pg 21
[xi] pg 24
[xii] pg 26
[xiii] pg 23
[xiv] pg 28
[xv] pg 29
[xvi] pg 1
[xvii] pg 10