How to Measure Human Well-Being in a Conservation Project

Goats belonging to Samburu tribe drinking at Namunyak water project; Namunyak Conservancy, Northern Rangelands Trust, Kenya. Suzi Eszterhas photo

Goats belonging to Samburu tribe drinking at Namunyak water project; Namunyak Conservancy, Northern Rangelands Trust, Kenya. Suzi Eszterhas photo

By Craig Leisher, Senior Social Scientist 

Measuring human well-being might at first seem impossibly complex. It’s subjective and varies greatly from person to person, right? Dark chocolate is vital to my well-being, for example, but it may not be so for all.

After two decades of work and two Nobel Prizes, human well-being can in fact be measured. A commission led by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia University), Noble laureate Amartya Sen (Harvard University), and Prof. Jean-Paul Fitoussi (Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris) summarized 20 years of learning on what matters for people’s well-being.

The commission’s first point of consensus was that well-being is about more than just income or GDP. But what else should be included? Building on the writings of Amartya Sen, the commission settled on eight focal areas for human well-being:

  • Material living standards (income, consumption and wealth)
  • Health
  • Education
  • Personal activities including work
  • Political voice and governance
  • Social connections and relationships
  • Environment (present and future conditions)
  • Insecurity, of an economic as well as a physical nature

This framework was subsequently adopted by the OECD, Germany and France as the tool for measuring “social progress” towards improving human well-being.

What if we used this framework to measure well-being impacts from conservation projects? A paper we recently published suggests this very idea.

Our paper looks at 11 focal areas of human well-being and their relevance to conservation projects. We suggest choosing the likely human well-being focal areas based on a project’s theory of change. Once focal areas are selected, it’s easy to draw from the myriad existing indicators at existing sources  to measure each focal area.

The measurement itself is the yin-yang of the simple yet complex BACI assessment (before-after, control-impact) that, for me at least, requires ample chocolate and perseverance.

Don’t be put off by the seeming complexity of measuring human well-being in a conservation project. We can and should measure it.

Leisher, C., Samberg, L., Van Buekering, P., Sanjayan, M. 2013. Focal Areas for Measuring the Human Well-Being Impacts of a Conservation Initiative. Sustainability, 5(3): 997-1010; doi:10.3390/su5030997.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Craig Leisher is a Senior Social Scientist who focuses on amplifying and measuring the benefits to people from conservation initiatives.

Comments: How to Measure Human Well-Being in a Conservation Project

  •  Comment from Dayna Gross

    Absolutely! Thank you for sharing this, I love the idea.

  •  Comment from Brigitte Griswold

    Great article Craig! I would love to connect with you on some of the social science measures work we are doing around youth,,

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