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Worldwide decline in personal rights hampers social progress, study shows

Demonstrators take cover from tear gas fired by Bolivarian National Guard soldiers during an anti-government protest in Caracas, Venezuela, April 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

An innovative tool used to gauge ‘social progress’ beyond the traditional, and arguably simplistic, mostly economic yardstick shows some gains in quality of life worldwide but also a disturbing decline in personal rights, freedom and social cohesion.

The U.S., despite its wealth, did not score too well.

“Progress on social issues does not automatically accompany economic development,” says Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, and his team in the executive summary accompanying this year’s Social Progress Index.

The 2017 Social Progress Index, which for its fourth year ranked 128 countries on a number of factors from economics to environmental well-being to human rights and governance, did show some overall improvement worldwide. But at the same time, the researchers found in many parts of the world a decline in social tolerance, respect of human rights and personal freedoms.

“The findings suggest that improved social progress in the aggregate should not mask the erosion in personal rights and challenges to tolerance and safety that threaten to undermine hard-earned social progress achievements,” Green and team wrote in the study summary.

Put simply, globally, personal rights on average have declined overall since the index launched in 2014. And this threatens progress overall.

Hungary and Nicaragua are among nine countries that have shown the biggest declines in overall social progress, the study found, and are doing worse since the index was first done in 2014.

The Social Progress Index (SPI) team attributes the areas of decline mostly to factors they measure related to individual rights and personal freedoms.

For example, the failed coup attempts in Burundi and Turkey led to severe restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly in those countries. Political leaders, in both cases, took steps such as authorizing the arrests of political opponents and shutting down news outlets considered unfriendly to the government.

The SPI was launched by Green and others because of dissatisfaction with earlier measures of human development or improvement. As stated, the SPI seeks to evaluate how countries are doing based on a wide range of indicators, including the Gross Domestic Product, access to clean water, women’s rights and even some fairly difficult (yet crucial) attempts to measure amorphous concepts like ‘tolerance.’

The SPI index is based on three main categories: basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing and opportunity. Some 128 countries are evaluated on 50 indicators within these three categories to produce the rankings.

Denmark takes the top ranking, but still has its problems. The country is dealing with a relatively high rate of failure for boys to graduate from high school and the authors say the country’s life expectancy (given its high economic and developmental status) should be higher.

The SPI team notes that achieving positive change is harder for the wealthier, top-ranked countries. Small improvements in low- or middle-income countries can produce large gains in the SPI ranking. Many of the world’s wealthiest countries, including the U.S., China, France and Russia, are barely improving in the index.

There is a strong relationship between economy and performance on the index, the researchers say, but again it alone does not predict overall social progress.

The U.S., despite its top ranking for wealth overall, comes in at 18th place largely because of its failures to provide all citizens with an adequate social safety net (e.g. health care), lack of environmental protections, high rates of violence and, perhaps surprisingly, lack of sufficient press freedom as well as equitable access to information technologies.

“We have the resources to do better,” Green said in a statement accompanying the 2017 metric. “The main problem is the inequality in wealth between rich and poor nations. Global aid flows are not sufficient to help the poorest countries to provide these basic needs for all.”

“Greater income can easily and positively influence a country’s social progress performance in more than half of the areas measured on the Social Progress Index,” he said. “But getting richer simply won’t move the needle far enough; the most stubborn challenges need innovation and other creative interventions, making social progress achievable by even the lowest resourced countries.”

Inequality is finally being recognized as not just an economic problem.

The global struggle to ensure freedom and tolerance results from a split in power and opportunity between people at the top and people at the bottom. The report points to the Sustainable Development Goals as a set of targets that will address many of the core problems posed by inequality. It says the global average score must raise from 64.85 today to 75 by 2030 in order to meet all of the targets.

There is reason to be optimistic about the progress of some individual countries, say the SPI team. India, Senegal and Bolivia moved up one ‘social progress tier’ in this year’s index. Senegal’s success is remarkable because it outperforms its economy. It joins countries like Chile and Nepal as places where significant gains in other social areas helps improve the overall standing of the country.

The under-performers are often those countries that might score okay if measured on pure economics. Chad and Afghanistan are among the countries that are not turning economic growth into social progress. They are poor countries. But Saudi Arabia ranks similarly to Chad and Afghanistan, due to its inequity and poor record on human rights.

“True success, and growth that is inclusive, requires achieving both economic and social progress,” said Michael Porter, a co-author of the report and professor at the Harvard Business School.

“America’s failure to advance social progress is limiting our economic growth and standing in the way of prosperity that is widely shared,” Porter said. “Countries must rethink how they measure success. Benchmarking social progress and taking the steps needed to advance it will be the key to national and local success in this century.”

The Social Progress Index is one of many tools that attempt to measure country-level performance. One of the oldest is the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index. Critics say that it puts too much emphasis on GDP and not enough on other areas of everyday life. Alternative indices, including the Happiness Index and the Social Progress Index, emerged in recent years to attempt to account for non-economic factors that contribute to wellbeing.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]