For the past 80 years, the success or failure of nations has been based primarily on one statistic. GDP, or gross domestic product, has become the benchmark that determines a nation’s progress and economic health. GDP is defined by Investopedia as “the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period.” In layman’s terms, GDP is a way of measuring the size of a nation’s economy, and it’s considered one of the most important ways of gauging the health of any given economy.
But GDP as a measurement of national progress has its limits. Most importantly, GDP fails to measure how real people, real citizens on the ground, are actually doing in any given nation. Do they feel safe? Are they getting adequate health care and education? Do they feel free to express themselves and worship their chosen religion? Do they suffer discrimination, or even violence? None of these questions can be answered by a simple measurement of GDP.
That’s where Michael Green and his team members at the Social Progress Imperative come into the picture. As a result of the disparity between actual, human well-being and economic success, Green and his researchers have developed a new way of measuring a society’s successes and failures. They’re calling it “the Social Progress Index,” and it can be used in combination with GDP to identify thriving (and not-so-thriving) nations across the globe. The first “beta” version of the Social Progress Index (SPI) was released in 2013, and the index for 2014 is the first full iteration of the project. The SPI measures a nation’s success based on three different dimensions: “Foundations of Wellbeing,” “Basic Human Needs,” and “Opportunity.”
Green notes that GDP, while still a critically important measure, falls short of measuring the success of nations in a real and human way, and is fundamentally separate and independent of measures of social progress. He adds, “[W]e live in a world where GDP is the benchmark of success in a global economy. Our politicians boast when GDP goes up. Markets move and trillions of dollars of capital move around the world based on which countries are going up and which countries are going down, all measured in GDP. Our societies have become engines to create more GDP.”
Green and his team at the Social Progress Imperative want national leaders to aspire to more than just increasing GDP. After all, Green notes, GDP “ignores the environment. It counts bombs and prisons as progress. It can’t count happiness or community. And it has nothing to say about fairness or justice. A society which fails to address basic human needs, equips citizens to improve their quality of life, erodes the environment, and limits opportunity for its citizens is not succeeding.”
When Green and his team were first developing the index, they made a crucial decision to measure each nation’s performance within each of the three dimensions of social progress, rather than its investment. In other words, they looked to see what countries had actually achieved in the way of social progress, rather than how much money or legislation had been thrown at a given issue or cause.
How to measure progress
Green and his team define social progress as “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.” They add, “the Social Progress Index aims to meet this pressing need by creating a holistic and robust measurement framework for national social and environmental performance that can be used by leaders in government, business, and civil society at the country level as a tool to benchmark success, improve policy, and catalyze action. Our vision is a world in which social progress sits alongside economic prosperity as the twin scorecards of success.”
Interestingly, the index found that the link between GDP and social progress isn’t a hard and fast one; the Social Progress Index makes it possible to recognize countries with relatively low GDP but high levels of social progress, and vice versa. Countries like Costa Rica, a veritable superstar in terms of social progress relative to its GDP, are great examples of nations which might be overlooked in a simple measure of economic power and growth. On the flip side, Kuwait has the fifth highest GDP per capita on the planet, but scores much lower than many of the poorest countries on the world when it comes to social progress. The are more nuances to a nation’s success than anyone might realize after simply glancing at a country’s annual GDP.
So where, you may be wondering, does the United States fall in all of this? Spoiler alert: not among the top 10. The United States ranks 16th, just ahead of Belgium and just behind the Republic of Ireland. The report also notes that Canada, despite being neighbors with the U.S., and sharing several similar strengths, still significantly outpaces us in almost every measure.
Why didn’t the U.S. rank into the top 10? Personal safety, a measurement within the “Basic Human Needs” dimension, was a major area for improvement. The U.S. has a much higher homicide rate than similar nations, in addition to higher numbers of traffic deaths, and more political terrorism. Additionally, measures of Health and Wellness, Ecosystem Sustainability, and Tolerance and Inclusion were among the areas where the U.S. scored lowest. The report notes that low relative life expectancy, a high obesity rate, sexism, and lack of a community safety net are all areas which contributed to the nation’s lower scores.
So which nations came out on top? Read on to find out.
- Population: 22.5 million
- Score: 86.10
- GDP (per capita): 35,669
The positive: Australia scored highest in the areas of Nutrition and Basic Medical Care, Access to Basic Knowledge, Water and Sanitation, as well as Personal Rights. Along with its neighbor New Zealand, Australia showed strength in measures of tolerance for immigrants, equality within higher education, and relatively low levels of deaths due to non-communicable diseases or outdoor air pollution.
The Social Progress Imperative report found that Oceania is the single highest performing region in the world, with both Australia and New Zealand scoring over 90 in the Basic Human Needs category. New Zealand outpaces Australia in several dimensions, but despite the Kiwis sizable lead, Australia’s score is still impressive enough to make it into the top 10. Australia scored high on measures of water and sanitation, personal rights (in particular freedom of speech), tolerance and inclusion, as well as equality in education.
The negative: The report found that Australia’s weak spots include relatively low scores on dimensions such as ecosystem sustainability, levels of violent crime, quality of electricity supply. Additionally, the country scored comparatively low on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.
- Population: 5.6 million
- Score: 86.55
- GDP (per capita): 32,363
The positive: Denmark is the lowest ranked Nordic country on the list, though it’s worth noting that every single Nordic country made it into the top 10. Denmark scores particularly high on dimensions such as level of corruption, personal rights, gender equality, access to affordable housing, and access to the Internet; the country scored highly on the Press Freedom Index.
The negative: Denmark can improve on dimensions such as maternal mortality, primary school enrollment, life expectancy, number of globally ranked universities, as well as the non-communicable disease deaths.
- Population: 5.4 million
- Score: 86.91
- GDP (per capita): 31,610
The positive: Finland scored particularly high the dimensions “Nutrition and Basic Medical Care,” as well as “Access to Information and Communication” and “Personal Freedom and Choice.” In particular the nation showed low levels of corruption, low levels of discrimination and violence against minorities, low levels of stillbirth, low levels of child mortality, and low levels of deaths from infectious diseases. The country scored highly on measures such as freedom of religion, gender parity in secondary enrollment, and number of Internet users. The nation also scored well on the Press Freedom Index, a measure of corruption and diversity in the media.
The negative: Interestingly, the ever-stoic Finns have a comparatively high homicide rate, and suicide rate, along with lower secondary school enrollment rates than similar nations.
- Score: 86.95
- Population: 34.9 million
- GDP (per capita): 35,936
The positive: Canada scores low on deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution, and high on gender equality, tolerance for immigrants, tolerance for homosexuals, religious tolerance, average years of tertiary schooling, and average amount of schooling for women.
The negative: Canada scored comparatively low on measures of access to piped water, and displayed a striking difference in water quality between rural and urban areas. The country scored low on measures of biodiversity and habitat health, as well as on measures of mobile telephone subscriptions. When it comes to nutrition and medical care, the nation has a surprisingly high maternal mortality rate when compared with similar nations.
- Score: 87.08
- Population: 9.5 million
- GDP (per capita): 34,945
The positive: Yet another Nordic country, Sweden has relatively low numbers of traffic deaths per year, a low maternal mortality rate, a low child mortality rate, low levels of violence and discrimination against minorities, along with low levels of corruption. The country scores high on a measure of the average number of years of schooling for women.
The negative: Despite Swedish women enjoying, on average, a great education, Sweden still needs to improve when it comes to gender equality, as the nation actually scores comparatively low on a measure of how respectfully women are treated in society. The nation also scored poorly on a measure of religious tolerance, and has a lower and average secondary school enrollment rate in comparison to similar nations. The report also found that Sweden has a deeper food deficit than similar nations.
- Score: 87.12
- Population: 5.0 million
- GDP (per capita): 47,547
The positive: Norway scored impressively high within the dimension “Access to Basic Knowledge,” and boasts similarly impressive scores when it comes to “Access to Information and Communication.” The nation is noted as having relatively low levels of corruption, low levels of stillbirths, and low levels of inequality within the education system. Additionally, the country has high numbers of Internet users in comparison with similar nations, and scored well on the Press Freedom Index.
The negative: Norway’s one outlying area for improvement is its residents access to affordable housing, where the country scored relatively low in comparison to similar nations.
- Score: 87.37
- Population: 16.8 million
- GDP (per capita): 36,438
The positive: The Netherlands scored highest on the dimensions “Access to Information and Communication” as well as “Ecosystem Sustainability.” The Netherlands was considered a leader in both dimensions, and had several areas of strength, including biodiversity and habitat, number of Internet users, in addition to the nation’s high score on the Press Freedom Index.
The negative: Despite impressively high scores in two different dimensions, the Netherlands still has room for improvement in many areas. The nation displayed high levels of violent crime, high levels inequality within the education system, high numbers of deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution, and low levels of religious tolerance when compared with similar nations.
- Score: 88.07
- Population: 320,137
- GDP (per capita): 33,880
The positive: Iceland is one of the most balanced nations on the Index; while the country doesn’t arise as a clear leader in any one dimensions, it places within the top 10 on every possible measure, with no dramatic areas for improvement. The country ranks high on measures of tolerance for homosexuals, displays high levels of religious tolerance, a relatively high life expectancy, a strong community safety net, high numbers of Internet users and a high score on the Press Freedom Index. Iceland ranks low on number of traffic deaths and deaths due to non-communicable diseases, in addition to a low stillbirth rate, a low child mortality rate, and low levels of discrimination and violence against minorities.
The negative: Iceland’s lowest measures appear in access to affordable housing, a comparatively low secondary school enrollment, and a lack of globally ranked universities in comparison to similar nations.
- Score: 88.19
- Population: ~8 million
- GDP (per capita): 39,293
The positive: A country which also appears frequently in rankings of happiest nations and nations with the best quality of life, the Swiss benefit from a relatively long life expectancy, low obesity rates, low rates of death from non-communicable diseases, low levels of inequality within the education system as well as environmentally friendly policies that contribute to low greenhouse gas emissions and high biodiversity and habitat wellness. The nation is also known for being exceptionally tolerant, and boasts high levels of freedom over life choices, as well as freedom of religion. Switzerland also scores high on the Press Freedom Index, and scores high on quality of electric supply in comparison with similar nations.
The negative: Switzerland’s weakest points include both primary and secondary school enrollment, in addition to a high suicide rate. Additionally, despite an otherwise highly tolerant culture, the study reports that Switzerland scores low on tolerance for immigrants compared with other nations. As a result, tolerance and inclusion is one dimension in which the country scored lowest, in addition to the “Health and Wellness” dimension, which could benefit from further investment.
1. New Zealand
- Score: 88.24
- Population: 4 million
- GDP (per capita): 25,857
The positive: New Zealand showed relative strength in many categories; the nation leads in measures of personal rights, access to basic knowledge, access to information and communication, personal freedom and choice, and tolerance and inclusion. The country ranks first on all measures within the “Opportunity” dimension, and holds the highest Opportunity score of all countries evaluated, at 88.01. The country’s comparatively progressive approach to indigenous rights has helped earn the nation a high ranking in tolerance and inclusion as well, and the report notes that New Zealand boasts a “strong and independent judiciary system,” which helps to enforce human rights laws. New Zealand takes pride in being the first nation to grant women the right to vote, resulting in two female prime ministers over the span of 20 years.
The negative: Even the highest ranked nation on the index has room for improvement, however. Despite being the first nation to grant women the right to vote, the country currently still experiences “violence against women, pay inequality, and limited gender diversity at the top (in both the private and public sector) continue to persist as systemic and frustrating challenges.”
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