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Governments looking to social progress as new development benchmark

Credit: Dylan Thomas / UKaid / Department for International Development

Norway and Sweden come out on top while Chad and Central African Republic are at the bottom of the 2015 edition of the Social Progress Index. Released yesterday, the index scores 133 countries on a long list of indicators to determine the progress of countries over time and places where work is needed.

The index, unveiled by Harvard professor Michael Porter two years ago at the Skoll World Forum, places the United States at number sixteen in the world. It is a humbling ranking for a country where political leaders tout it as the greatest nation in human history. Areas including basic medical care, quality of electrical supply and obesity all fare worse than countries with similar economies.

If wealth was an indicator of well-being, that the US would be right up at the top. But that is not the case for the Social Progress Index.

Notably absent from the scorecard is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Unlike the Human Development Index published annually by the United Nations, the social progress index ditches GDP in favor of things like maternal mortality rates, access to piped water, adult literacy and religious tolerance.


That is because GDP growth alone does not cause change on all social indicators.

“We see that two components barely improve with increased GDP – Health and Wellness and Ecosystem Sustainability,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of the Social Progress Imperative, the group behind the index, to Humanosphere. “There needs to be a separate focus.”

In total, 52 indicators make up the Social Progress Index. While it does not include GDP, the point is not to entirely dismiss it. Rather, it is to raise questions as to what economic growth can and cannot deliver and what should be done about it.

“If your national development plan is about economic growth, you only half the plan,” said Green. “We need to ask, “What has growth delivered for us so far and what hasn’t it delivered?””

And some are starting to agree. The European Commission says it will use the index to determine how to allocate some  €63.4 billion throughout the European Union, reported the Guardian. The hope is to drill down and provide social progress data from the 272 regions that are located in the EU’s 28 countries.

But this is not new ground for Green and his team. They released their first sub-regional index in Brazil last August. Pará, one Brazilian state, already says it is going to use the data on its sub-regions to target and implement programs that will bring up failing areas. It is joined by an array of governments from near-by Paraguay to the U.S. state of Michigan. Even the World Bank says it is interested in the index, said Green.

overperforming countries

At the heart of the index is exposing inequality. Larger national gains that can be masked by overall economic growth or single indicators can obscure problems experienced by people at the bottom.

The index also shows the over-performers. Green specifically called attention to Costa Rica, ranked 28th overall and ahead of Israel, Brazil and Italy.

“By identifying countries that are over-performing, we can ask why they are doing so well,” he said.

A few years into the index, there is hope that is able to track the small changes that happen over time. Even the Scandanavian countries at the top have some work to do.

“Absolute scores are significant,” said Green. “We want countries to have more social progress. Every country has the challenge to get to 100.”


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]