Introduction by Croakey: The Economic Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index actively supports the “erosion of public social infrastructure” with its dependence on private services, according to Professor Hannah Badland, Dr Amanda Alderton, Karen Villanueva and Associate Professor Melanie Davern from RMIT University.
The Index applied to determine the world’s most ‘liveable’ cities – of which Naarm/Melbourne earned third place this year – is problematic in that it may reflect improvements in private healthcare and education “where access is limited to those who can pay for the services”, Badland, Alderton, Villanueva and Davern argue below.
They suggest that monitoring a neighbourhood or city’s progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may be a better benchmark for measuring liveability.
As recently reported at Croakey, no countries are on target to achieve all of the SDGs by the 2030 deadline and Australia is falling behind in efforts to reduce inequalities and poverty.
By applying the SDGs to liveability, it would be “based on the principles of equity, resilience, sustainability, inclusion, productivity, and creating pathways that support health and wellbeing”, the authors write below.
Hannah Badland, Amanda Alderton, Karen Villanueva and Melanie Davern write:
Melbourne has again been ranked one of the most liveable cities by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU). Vienna, Copenhagen and Melbourne are the top three ‘most liveable cities’ according to a liveability index that considers five categories – stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure.
While these broad categories seem fit-for-purpose, the devil is in the detail.
We argue that awards such as the EIU’s ‘Global Liveability Index’ rankings actively support the erosion of public social infrastructure by incentivising privatisation. For example, the availability and quality of private education are key EIU education indicators, followed by public education indicators. These private education indicators are based on judgement calls from non-specialist in-house analysts and field correspondents.
Indeed, 26 of the 30 indicators that form the Global Liveability Index are based on these in-house qualitative assessments.
Furthermore, the 2023 EIU’s Global Liveability Index opening summary acknowledges the improvement in healthcare and education scores across many cities in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. EIU indicators in these categories include private services, and higher scores may simply reflect improvements in private facilities, where access is limited to those who can pay for the services.
Where does this leave disadvantaged people living in these cities? How does it reconcile with the right to good health and wellbeing and quality education as laid out in Goals three and four of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? How do those most vulnerable benefit from their city becoming more dependent on privatised services?
Yet, cities badged as being one of the ‘most liveable cities’ are quick to recognise and brand their success, despite the EIU making no attempt to provide a balanced view as to why such metrics are included in their measurement of liveability.
The EIU boldly conceptualises liveability as ‘which locations around the world provide the best or worst living conditions’ with indicators described as showing ‘challenges to an individual’s lifestyle.’
Our work defines liveability very differently.
We are transparent with our inclusion criteria for a liveable city, based squarely on scientific evidence about what makes a place inclusive, productive, and healthy, with a focus on access and availability for all.
We consider a liveable neighbourhood (and by proxy a liveable city) as one that is ‘safe, socially cohesive, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable. It has affordable housing linked via public transport, walking, and cycling infrastructure, to employment, education, shops and services, public open space, and social, cultural, and recreational facilities.’
This year’s Global Liveability Index is focused on post-pandemic recovery. Of the six new COVID-19 related indicators, four relate to restrictions on social and cultural activities, for example restrictions on theatre, local sporting events, and only two consider public social infrastructure stress, such as healthcare and education.
These indicators have been conceptualised while knowing there have been significant disruptions to society.
There was a 14 percent decline in global working hours in the second quarter of 2020, equivalent to a loss of 400 million full-time jobs. We also saw approximately 80 million children younger than one missing routine vaccinations and a 38 percent increase in maternal mortality during 2020 due to health system disruptions.
This poses the question of how relevant the EIU Index is to people’s daily lives and wellbeing?
Surely markers such as precarious employment, low levels of educational attainment, or living in insecure or unaffordable housing are as important (or more) as whether a person can go to the theatre?
More relevant benchmark
Perhaps a better benchmark for countries and cities is monitoring progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Individual country progress on the SDGs has been annually benchmarked and compared against the 17 goals and underlying supporting targets.
In Australia, the Australian Urban Observatory is measuring liveability across 21 cities and linking all liveability indicators to the SDGs and similar initiatives are tracking progress internationally.
A reversal in progress alongside significant turmoil is evident globally, with no country on track to achieve all the goals by 2030. This regular, independent assessment is important for transparency and holding countries to account.
Togo and Uruguay are the only countries who have submitted Voluntary National Reviews four years in a row.
By comparison, Australia has only submitted one Voluntary National Review in 2018. Australia’s independent assessment in 2022 showed stagnation or declines in progress to achieving the SDGs, and we are not on target to achieving any of the 17 Goals by 2030.
This is in stark contrast to this year’s EIU rankings, where five Australian cities made the top 20 liveable cities list.
The time has come to drop the public relations ambition to make the EIU’s short list which is based on opaque metrics that prioritise a select few.
Instead, we should look to measuring and monitoring city performance based on the principles of equity, resilience, sustainability, inclusion, productivity, and creating pathways that support health and wellbeing. Surely that is what counts for a truly liveable city.
This article was written on the unceded lands of the Woi Wurrung and Boon Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nations and respect is paid to Elders past, present, and future. Professor Hannah Badland, Dr Amanda Alderton, and Associate Professor Melanie Davern are supported by RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellowships.
See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on health inequalities