Tallying up social progress

Trying to measure social progress with a global index that compares countries can be as fraught as the reliance on GDP statistics. Yet it points to new ways to view progress.

Children play with a nun in Lambare, Paraguay. The South American nation is the first in the world to use the Social Progress Index in its national planning.

Those seeking to help others make progress often are at a loss on how to define it. To some skeptics, the very idea of progress is suspect. Yet this has not stopped attempts to devise indicators of progress in order to measure it and perhaps even discover what causes it.

The latest attempt is the Social Progress Index. The SPI, which is based on the work of Harvard University business professor Michael Porter, ranks 132 countries on 54 indicators from personal rights to personal safety to personal cellphones. It is designed to challenge the common economic scorecard known as the “gross domestic product,” which tallies the value of goods and services a country produces. The SPI is supposed to be “people oriented,” not wealth focused like the GDP.

It builds on the work of other recent global inventories, such as the Human Development Index, Millennium Development Goals, Better Life Index, and the World Happiness Report. If the SPI is a step up from those, it is because many of its indicators dive into nonmaterial aspects of life. It asks how individuals can “reach their full potential” and how communities can “sustain well-being.”

The SPI is expected to be a tool to help each country make progress in specific outcomes, in large part by comparing itself with others. The goal is not happiness, the SPI states, because “a happy society is not necessarily a good society.” A country can rank high in happiness but still suppress a minority or degrade the environment.

New Zealand ranks highest in overall “social progress,” followed by Switzerland, Iceland, and the Netherlands. The first thing to notice about those countries is that they are small and largely cohesive. But New Zealand ranks 25th in GDP per capita, showing that wealth does not easily correlate to social progress. Take the United States, for example. It is second in GDP per capita but only 16th on the index. Yet compared with other Western nations, the US government spends less per capita to achieve a relatively high ranking in social progress.

The index offers other insights. The United Arab Emirates outranks Israel. Jamaica beats China and Uruguay beats Russia. Costa Rica outshines Spain and Italy. Resource-rich nations tend not to do well on social progress. Among the world’s five largest developing nations, Brazil is the only one that ranks higher in social progress than in GDP per capita.

The index also finds that wealth does not track closely to some civic measures, such as press freedom, but does in access to higher education. For the poorest countries, even a slight economic improvement can bring big gains in social progress. For wealthier countries, social progress can backslide in a few areas such as the environment.

If this index has a weakness, it is that it presumes to know what always constitutes progress and assumes government largely drives it. Other global surveys can help overcome this flaw. One is the Freedom in the World ratings, which rank individual freedoms. Another is the Global Peace Index, which measures degrees of nonviolence and disarmament.

The whole notion that progress can be measured is itself worth questioning. Ultimately, progress is change with a purpose, usually a moral one with its own intrinsic value. Material progress can suffer setbacks, such as from war or climate change. But moral progress, which is based on spiritual causation, is lasting and incalculable. To help others achieve that sort of progress doesn’t take an index.

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