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Measurable progress… and more

A mate put me onto Bill Gates’s 2013 annual letter and the surrounding discussion. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation makes targeted attacks on big issues, like poverty, health, and education. Gates’s letter emphasises the importance of measurable goals and measurable change:

In the past year I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.

Progress doesn’t have to be accidental — in fact, if we are attentive, it can be expected.

The sort of progress on view here is the advance towards the UN’s Millenium Development Goals. Here, in brief, are some of the highlights. In just the last 20 years worldwide:

  • Child mortality has almost halved
  • Maternal deaths in childbirth have halved
  • The number of people in extreme poverty has halved

There are big strides being made here, and they’re being made rapidly. These changes have happened in my own short lifetime!

All I want to do here is canvas the conversation, and make one point: there are different types of progress. That is, there’s more to progress than the Millenium Development Goals because there’s more to progress than what we can measure.


The MDGs are about standards and benchmarks and metrics, about ‘getting things up to speed’. They’re quantitative: ‘How can we channel $Y into Z% immunised children?’ This is also, by the way, the sort of change we’re particularly attuned to as Westerners. We love KPIs, projections and problem-solving. (There are reasons we go gaga over TED talks!)

Now, I’m not interested in qualifying the news that Gates presents. It’s good news! Movement towards the MDGs is change for the better. Yet it’s only one dimension. The MDGs are a worldwide report card, but they’re not a truly global set of categories. Yes, some of the MDGs tap into more intangible change — universal education and gender equality, for example — but these are cast in quantitative terms.

Another sort of progress is what we might call moral progress: something more qualitative, aesthetic, and ethical. This is the realm of hearts and minds, attitudes, character, and motivation. This is to ask, for example, How can a community handle money more equitably and less corruptly? It’s the kind of thing you might have heard us talking about in Melbourne and Adelaide during the past year. It’s one thing to resource health care through medical training, for example, but what will motivate these doctors to serve in the most needy communities?

Perhaps you can think of other dimensions of progress. But my point is that both sorts of progress are important, because both are dimensions of human dignity and flourishing. Giving someone a chance at a life free of debilitating illness is one aspect of dignity. But so too is enabling someone to be a steward of the world through creative occupation. Neither dimension trumps the other, neither is more spiritual than the other. We need both, and we mustn’t lose sight of either. And both, of course, are on view in university ministry.

Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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