BOSTON — ECONOMIC wealth doesn't necessarily translate to improved social conditions, according to a recent "world report card on social progress.""The theory in the past has been that social development follows on the heels of economic development," says Richard Estes, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work in Philadelphia. But Professor Estes, who has studied world social progress for 20 years and produced two previous "report cards," points out that some very rich countries lag far behind in social development. Although the United States has the largest economy in the world, it ranks 18th on Estes's "report card." And despite relatively stable economies, the African nations of Kenya, Senegal, and Zimbabwe have declined dramatically on the social index during the past two decades. Social development is measured by a nation's ability to meet the needs of citizens through such services as health care and education. Using 46 indicators ranging from the rate of population increase to the percentage of people sharing the same mother tongue, Estes ranks 124 countries around the globe. Denmark takes the No. 1 position, followed by 12 other European countries. Japan follows as No. 14. Ethiopia takes last place, just behind Mozambique, Angola, and Chad. "Much of the development worldwide has been focused on increasing the gross national product," says James Billups, a professor of social work at Ohio State University in Columbus. "The infrastructure for human and social development is not given much attention compared to economic and political development." The report card on social progress is an effort to measure quality of life; only six of the 46 indicators measure economic factors. Since Estes began collecting data in the 1970s, net social gains have been slim. Although many countries committed themselves to social development in the '70s, that progress was largely eroded during the 1980s, Estes says. "Despite the tens of billions of dollars and [many] hours of technical assistance provided to developing countries, the decade of the '80s was basically a wipeout from a social-development perspective," he says. Estes characterizes the overall record on global social progress as "dismal." A number of factors contribute to the situation: Worldwide economic problems. While the economy doesn't dictate the whole picture, Estes says, high rates of inflation and indebtedness can certainly have a devastating effect. Population growth. "Unless some major inroads are made curtailing the rate of population increase, many of these countries will continue to find it virtually impossible to make major leaps forward," according to Estes. Cultural factors. Cultural diversity is undermining the capacity of many countries to develop any sense of nationhood, he says. All the countries at or near the top of the social index spend little on national defense. "The American willingness to extend our defense umbrella to these countries means that they have been able to put a larger share of their gross national product into social programs," Estes says. Although the US financial commitment to the defense of Europe, Japan, and other nations partially accounts for its low ranking, that's not the entire story. "Our biggest problem has to do with the inequitable status between white Americans and nonwhite Americans," Estes says. The social situation of nonwhite Americans - who make up at least 15 percent of the US population - resembles that of a "fairly advanced developing country," he says. That deficiency pulls down the overall scores for the US. Estes uses statistics from such resources as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Last year the United Nations Development Programme started an annual "Human Development Report" that considers various factors affecting human progress rather than focusing on economic indicators alone. But according to Harry Specht, dean of the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, Estes's Index of Social Progress is "unique in scope." "There are a lot of bodies that prepare these data on a one-shot basis," Dean Specht says. "But Estes has now set up a database that enables him to give almost any country in the world feedback on where they stand in regard to various social indicators." "My primary purpose in doing this is to continue to sensitize the public to the very difficult, in many cases, desperate situations of developing countries," Estes says. "And having sensitized people to that, to encourage them to renew their commitment and their attention to trying to solve these problems."