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Social boundaries: What do they mean at the scale of organisational performance?

By Dr Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming

The future of humanity will depend on mastering a balancing act. The challenge will be to provide for the needs of more than ten billion people while safeguarding our planetary life-support systems. Recent scientific insights have made us better equipped than ever to strike that balance. Doing so will be our generation’s great task.

Project Syndicate

We are rapidly approaching the limits of our Earth's environment carrying capacities - rivers are running dry, greenhouse gas emissions are impacting climatic conditions and we are experiencing a mass extinction of biodiversity. At the same time, millions of people are living in conditions below what internationally can be considered as our social thresholds in relation to basic, yet critical, human needs such as hunger, literacy, poverty and political freedom. In short, we are reaching the limits of our planet.

What are social boundaries?

In 2012, Oxfam released their “doughnut”, chartering a safe and just space in which human and planetary well-being are assured. Living within the “doughnut”, we ensure all of humanity have access to basic social rights - dignity, prosperity and fulfillment - whilst remaining within the environmental limits, which must not be crossed if the earth is to remain in its current state.

Following our planetary boundaries practitioner research (Article 13, 2014), over the past 4 months Article 13 has undertaken practitioner research to explore how different organisations (public and private) around the world are attempting to address the eleven societal thresholds identified by Oxfam and how they are measuring their impact. In particular we were interested in how different organisations are addressing these thresholds at different scales - local, national, global.

This research

Over this series of 4 blogs, we will share some of the emerging insight from this research [for the full report, please contact Jim Ormond at and see @Article13 for updates].

We begin with the eleven social thresholds themselves, what they are, how we can measure them and why they matter.

What are the limits and why do these matter for organisations?

1. Food security:

  • Indicator: % population undernourished
  • Current status: The United Nations FAO estimates that approximately 805 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2012-2014 - Link
  • Impact: It is reported that every $1 spent on direct nutrition interventions has an average $15 return, a comparable or superior return to investments in irrigation, water and sanitation, or infrastructure - Link [See for instance the Global Nutrition for Growth Compact commitment for tackling under-nutrition]

2. Income

  • Indicator: Population living below $1.25 (PPP) per day
  • Current status: 4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day.
  • Impact: A pilot unconditional basic income scheme, funded by UNICEF, reported that paying a basic income - individually, unconditionally, universally, monthly, and guaranteed as a right - led to improved welfare, equity, growth and emancipation, a transformative combination. 

3. Water and sanitation

  • Indicator: Population without access to an improved drinking water source AND Population without access to improved sanitation
  • Current status: 783 million people, or 11 per cent of the global population, remain without access to an improved source of drinking water
  • Impact: On average, every $1 dollar invested in water and sanitation provides economic return of $4 - Link

4. Health care

  • Indicator: Population estimated to be without regular access to essential medicines
  • Current status: The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a third of the world’s population lacks access to the most basic essential medicines - Link
  • Impact: Worldwide, tuberculosis kills 2-3 people a minute and is estimated to cost the global economy 0.52% of GNI per year in lost productivity and wages due to sickness and death. That equates to nearly $380b - Link 

5. Education

  • Indicator: Children not enrolled in primary school
  • Current status: 10% of children are not enrolled in primary school
  • Impact: Burundi, which brought the number of out-of-school children down from 723,000 in 1999 to just 10,000 in 2009. Over the same period, Burundi increased its investment in education from 3.2% of GDP to 8.3%

6. Energy

  • Indicator: Population lacking access to electricity
  • Indicator: Population lacking access to clean cooking facilities
  • Current status: Worldwide, 1.3billion people continue to live without access to electricity - Link 

7. Gender equality

  • Indicator: Employment gap between women and men in waged work (excluding agriculture)
  • Indicator: Representation gap between women and men in national parliaments
  • Current status: There is a 77% representation gap between women and men in national parliaments - Link
  • Impact: A combination of low pay, low participation in the workforce and insecure employment not only drags down women’s economic opportunities, but also costs the global economy $9tn .

8. Social equity

  • Indicator: Population living on less than median income in countries with a Gini coefficient exceeding 0.35
  • Current status: 33% of Population living on less than median income in countries with a Gini coefficient exceeding 0.35 - Link
  • Impact: In Africa - although 7 out of 10 people in the region live in countries that have averaged growth of more than 4% a year for the past decade. A recent study found that almost half of Africans were still living on incomes below the internationally accepted poverty benchmark of $1.25 a day. 

9. Voice

  • Indicator (to be defined): e.g. Population living in countries perceived (in surveys) not to permit political participation or freedom of expression
  • Current status: Not reported - we will be publishing a series of indicators and info-graphics on this topic - to capture how voice links to access 

10. Jobs

  • Indicator (to be defined): e.g. Labour force not in decent work
  • Current status: In Spain it is estimated that 2.4 million contracts are between one and three months long. In the UK and Norway, 8% and 10.4% of the workforce work very short part-time hours.
  • Impact: The Resolution Foundation showed that zero-hours workers earned an average of £9 an hour, compared with £15 for other employees and there is emerging evidence that these contracts will eventually affect a company’s productivity and performance - Link 

11. Resilience

  • Indicator (to be defined): g. Population facing multiple dimensions of poverty
  • Current status: A total of 1.6 billion people are living in multidimensional poverty. .
  • Impact: Ending USD 1.25 per day poverty is unlikely to mean the end of the many overlapping deprivations faced by poor people, including malnutrition, poor sanitation, a lack of electricity or schools - Link

Article 13’s practitioner research is written and designed to contribute to public debate, invite feedback and showcase interesting, novel and leading practice. If you would like to contribute please contact or follow us on Twitter to get alerts for our forthcoming blogs on social boundaries.

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