We are used to measuring countries by their GDP and evaluating governments by economic growth. But how much does a measure designed for the industrial economy tell us about the life chances of ordinary citizens?
Take the United States. The USA is the world’s fifth richest country by GDP per head, but only 19th for social progress. Compared to countries with a similar level of prosperity – like Canada, Germany or Australia – the USA is worse on child mortality, on traffic deaths, on obesity, on homicide, on suicide, on freedom of the Press and religion, and on many other indicators besides.
For the amount of money it has to spend, the US is worse than every other Western country at providing its citizens with a good society.
That’s according to the Social Progress Index, a new way of measuring how good a job societies are doing for the people who live in them. The purpose of it is to find a rigorous, mathematical means of defining a country’s success that isn’t just GDP. (Incidentally, GDP was designed to measure production from farms and factories, and doesn’t map very well to what today’s economies actually consist of.)
"These are countries that just fell apart"
“A great example of why that’s important is the Arab Spring,” Michael Green, CEO of non-profit the Social Progress Imperative, which designed the index, told Apolitical. “These are countries that the World Bank were saying were great economic superstars, and they just fell apart.”
To get to those rankings, the SPI crunches a lot of numbers. At the top level, it measures provision for “basic human needs” – such as nutrition, shelter and personal safety; the “foundations of wellbeing” – such as access to basic education and communications; and “opportunity” – such as personal rights and freedoms, inclusion and advanced education.
Each of those sub-categories, such as personal safety, is calculated from a number of indicators, such as the homicide rate, violent crime rate, perceived criminality, political terror and traffic deaths.
The world's biggest over-performer is Costa Rica
There are 53 indicators in all and once you add them up for all the countries involved, you get the ranking that puts the US at 19th in the world. According to the index, Finland is the most socially advanced country in the world, followed by Canada and Denmark. Five of the top ten countries are Nordic, and the only two not in Europe are Canada and Australia. If the world were a country, it would rank between Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia for social progress.
But the creators of the ranking hope it will be much more than merely another means of confirming that Scandinavian societies are very well run. You can also see how well countries are doing for the amount of money they have, which tells a very different story.
The biggest over-performer – by a big margin – is Costa Rica, followed by Kyrgyzstan and Moldova. The biggest under-performer – again by a big margin – is Saudi Arabia, followed by Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.
Crucial to the rankings is this idea of measuring not the money available – an input – but the effect on society – the output, letting people analyse the relationship between a country’s economic development and its social development.
The SPI is not supposed to replace measuring economic growth. It’s supposed to see how that economic growth converts into the things we as people actually need.
The index’s organisers want governments to report on their social progress in the same way they release statistics about GDP or unemployment, and so make them accountable to their citizens for a good society rather than just economic growth.
"We can have a scorecard of the daily working of government"
One country has already done that: Paraguay. Its Minister of Planning, Jose Molinas, told Apolitical, “The SPI allows us to have a more meaningful national budget, that traces taxpayers’ money to the outputs that government institutions will deliver to citizens.
“So then we can have a scorecard of the daily working of the government. Because the budget is decided by what public institutions will actually deliver over a year, we can see who’s doing fine, who’s doing so-so, who’s lagging behind. If the president and the citizens see that, it creates a strong incentive to catch up.”
Molinas also believes that the rankings serve to organise a country’s efforts. He gave an example of Paraguay’s work to improve its higher education and so shift its economy towards white-collar jobs:
“One of the indicators is how many universities you have among the top 400 worldwide. That is an indicator it’s very unlikely we would have reached through our own discussions, but when you suggest this, people say, oh, that’s an excellent idea.
"If we hadn't had the SPI, there's no way this would have taken place"
“So that became an objective in the national development plan, because it’s quite logical that, if we want a knowledge-based economy, we need a good university that could foster research and innovation.
“But we have no idea how to do it. A top-400 university has to produce around 1500 publications per year. The collective scientific production of Paraguay was 130.
“There’s no way we could create a university like that from scratch, there’s no way that any existing university will do the job, so we’ve had to come up with something creative. People started thinking of a two-tier system, where all the research institutions in Paraguay get together and create a second-level university to catalyse research and innovation. And when you see it in that way, the goal is doable.
“If we hadn’t had the SPI, there’s no way this would have taken place.”
There is of course a risk that a country could deform its priorities to meet the targets rather than addressing the underlying issues that the targets are supposed to measure, but Molinas insisted that that is not the case here. Rather, he says, the university is one target among a whole group for improvements to the country’s education.
"You can never have a value-free framework"
There is also an oft-voiced objection that the index essentially measures Western values, most obviously religious tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. That is one of the reasons that comparatively rich countries like Saudi Arabia score very badly.
Michael Green said: “The indicators we use are founded very much on agreed targets, like the UN declaration on human rights, and we’ve tried as hard as possible not to make them driven by Western values. Ultimately, you can never have a value-free framework and, for us, tolerance for homosexuals is an important indicator, but that one indicator will not drive the overall result.”
At the moment, the bigger hurdle for the Social Progress Index is the simple one of uptake: for it to be useful, it has to become part of public debate in the way that GDP or unemployment figures are.
The organisation is working with various levels of government in the US, India and several other countries to encourage them to use it. That may be a hard sell, especially since politicians might see a new measure of government success as a rod for their own backs.
If they succeed, we may experience a subtle shift in our political priorities. For example, when it comes to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals – the globally agreed objectives on things like poverty, unemployment and inequality – the SPI’s current projections indicate that if we rely on economic growth alone, we will fall far short. That alone shows that we need to start doing things differently.
A version of this article originally appeared on Apolitical.