But is it measurable?
There is no shortage of value-laden rhetoric in sustainable development when it comes to the end goals. At the level of political commitments and long-term strategies, there is an implicit understanding that transformational change requires a willingness to give voice to mankind’s highest future potential. In calling for nothing less than the complete eradication of all forms of injustice and inequality in the wild timeframe of less than two decades, the Sustainable Development Goals perhaps reflect the ultimate appeal to human values. They are not based on an assessment of what is ‘possible’ within the boundaries of an existing social order, but rather assert what is simply a moral imperative — and in this, demand that the world urgently reimagine the foundation of its social, economic, and environmental systems to create the possibility for this alternate future.
While the language of ‘spirituality’ finds its expression in the documents meant to provide vision and direction to development efforts, there is often a vast divide between the means and the end. Whereas it might be acceptable to engage with human qualities as ineffable as ‘dignity’ and ‘fulfillment,’ for instance, when considering the desired outcomes of a process of development, much less freedom is permitted to truly grapple with the human and profound when it comes to the design of the actual processes and interventions meant to contribute to their achievement. We may have progressed in the ways we articulate the reasons behind the material progress we aspire to — e.g. that our efforts to eradicate poverty ultimately aim at conferring equal freedom, possibility, and dignity to all people — but rarely inquire into the true meaning and source and substance of freedom or dignity, or consider the role of such inquiry within the design of interventions.
We willfully box ourselves into mental models that enable us to maintain some separation between self and system, between spiritual and material, because to acknowledge their interconnectedness opens a Pandora’s box of uncertainty and vulnerability. It is much easier to hold to the notion that redistributing material wealth will lead to a redistribution of dignity. It is much harder to acknowledge that universal dignity is a facet of the strength of human relationships, of the richness of people’s interior lives, or in the extent to which people have internalized the reality of the oneness of mankind and made it the foundation of their economic systems. We at least have theories of change for our efforts in the former.
So much of what fuels and sustains the stubborn divergence between the means and the ends of sustainable development can be found in the world of meaning contained in the question, “but is it measurable?” Within this is also the question: but is there actually a place for the messy, complex and intangible within our dominant thought frameworks that prioritize the visible over the transformational and grant us illusions of control and predictability?
There is nothing objective or fixed about the ways we define what constitute progress, and the ways we formulate indicators against which we can measure such progress. An indicator is not a mirror of reality but a statement about what we value, or what we believe should be valued. At the broadest scale, an indicator becomes a compass for governments’ and institutions’ investments and policies. When one really considers what is at stake in the work of measuring, evaluating, or otherwise creating frameworks through which we can systematically capture and assess the human and intangible work at the heart of systems change, it makes you wonder why this isn’t the pressing concern of every single person interested in contributing to the betterment of the world — whether they be an M&E expert in a development organization or an engaged citizen working to build community.
Part of the problem, I think, lies in the framing. The perceptions we hold about a process and its relationship to the things that touch our hearts matter. They influence how we show up for it. And in the context of measurement, they often dictate who ends up in the room — not only in terms of who is invited into the work of defining and measuring development progress, but also who feels the need to be there in the first place and how they understand their potential contributions. It also leads those who hold the power to set the development agendas to ignore or simply not see the forms of ingenuity in measurement and systematic learning that already exist among communities leading their own development efforts, albeit under different names and forms than what a multilateral institution or government might define as a measurement framework. And when we consider the profound levels of collective moral imagination and collaboration required to devise new forms of data, indicators and sense-making processes capable of measuring change in the ‘soft’ dimensions of systems transformation — not on the basis of objectivity but according to agreed systems of shared meaning — it is clear that this work cannot be confined to technical experts, researchers, and evaluators.
So I would like to propose a new entry point and additional conceptual home for measurement. Rather than make the case for why the work of measuring values-based human development processes is necessary — an argument that has been made by many — I’d like to simply suggest that any work to measure (to systematically define metrics for, assess, and learn from) efforts to bring about positive social change is fundamentally spiritual work. In this, I hope to dislocate the concept of ‘measurement’ from the language of the purely scientific and technical, and propose a second home for it in the world of beauty and spirituality.
Much of our current language and framing of this topic leads us to superficially fragment what in reality is whole — including through the distinctions we erect between communities of the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘technical,’ between science and religion, or between those concerned with hearts and those concerned with economic and political systems. In this fragmentation, we diminish the power of any of these ‘domains’ to effect a meaningful transformation on societies. If we consider ‘spirituality’ simply as that which is a function of our spirits or highest human nature (e.g. the embodiment of divine attributes such as unity, truth, compassion, love etc.), then any goal or work to contribute to the development of more equitable and prosperous societies is in essence a spiritual endeavor. The spiritual nature of the goal, however, does not stand in contrast to the need for structure and systematic action. Even in the case of explicitly spiritual- or faith-driven practices, it is not individual-level reflection and moral development alone that drive social progress, but collective forms of action and reflection that harness and reinforce individual capabilities for the spiritual and material advancement of humanity.
That is, anything that is transformational in an individual, a community, or a society depends on interconnection, on relationship. But the achievement of generative shifts in these connecting points — between individuals, between communities, or between communities and institutions — at a macro scale does not happen by chance. It also does not happen through a growing mass of individuals in isolation cultivating rich interior lives and fostering love and good intentions in their hearts. It happens through the intentional architectures of connection we collectively construct to both support the cultivation of people’s interior lives and channel the energy and latent capacities of these spiritual qualities into social good. The creation of such infrastructure requires the scientific method. It requires working with elements that are fundamentally unpredictable — human relationships, the human heart — and progressively learning what works and what doesn’t in laying the foundation for new patterns of social life and eventually new systems to emerge based on principles of unity and justice: it requires measurement.
This is not an argument for communities of the spiritual and the scientific to talk to each other more. It is an assertion that everyone involved in the work of human development — which extends far beyond those who identify as development actors — must embody the elements of both in their work. It is also an assertion that the divide between what is spiritual and what is rational or scientific is in itself an illusion. And, in many parts of the world, this integrated form of action is already taking place. As just one example, among Bahá’í communities globally, an approach to grassroots development is applied that focuses on catalyzing transformation in both the inner life of communities — to enable them to take charge of their own spiritual, social, and intellectual development — and their external conditions. Activities aimed at strengthening community ties, developing practices of consultation based on love and cooperation, and building individual and collective capabilities to apply spiritual principles to social challenges are guided by systematic processes of action, reflection, and consultation: of continuously assessing indicators of progress and applying the learning as it unfolds. It is an iterative and rigorous process of love in action, of learning how to best apply and wield the resources of the heart to restructure the systems that govern society at all levels.
For some, the notion of applying a scientific lens to something that is of the heart and spirit may seem inherently at odds: that attempting to fit that which is uncontainable and expansive into thought frameworks and process that allow for experimentation and measurement would diminish their power or true essence. One alternate orientation here might be to consider the work of creating measurements for the abstract as akin to the work performed by poetry. In an interview, the poet Tracey K. Smith described poetry as a form of research: of applying tools and processes to her deepest questions in order to yield a new kind of information and form of intervention, noting that the constraints of a poem invite different possibilities.
As in poetry, finding creative forms of ‘containment’ for the boundless dimensions of human existence that shape our common reality does not narrow our comprehension of such forces or their effects on individuals and societies, but invites forward new possibilities for how we understand and engage with them. It is not about reducing the complexity of the world into a model or denying the subjectivity and nuance of values and human behavior. It is fundamentally about crafting “interworlds” of shared meaning through metrics that actually allow us to bridge our moral aspirations for human development with the methods and principles we use to reach them. Part of the work of translating beautiful ideals into reality is asking more beautiful questions — perhaps a good starting point for development actors is to interrogate the impulse to ask “is it measurable?” and instead embrace the collective existential challenge posed by the question “how can we best surface the impact of and assign value to the intangible human drivers of development?”