The Most Socially Progressive Nations in the World

In a previous post, I introduced an article and TED Talk about the Social Progress Index (SPI), which seeks to better capture a country’s ability to provide opportunities, basic needs, and overall life satisfaction to its people. I highly recommend you check it out, as it offers a lot of food for thought about how we should measure a society’s success and well-being, and which places are doing a better job towards those ends.

CNN Money took notice of this new approach and shared the 2015 SPI ranking of countries.

As a reminder, SPI measures a country’s ability to provide a “good society” based on 52 indicators spanning three dimensions: Basic Human Needs (food, water, shelter, safety); Foundations of Wellbeing (basic education, information, health and a sustainable environment); and Opportunity (do people have rights, freedom of choice, freedom from discrimination, and access to higher education?)

With that in mind, the following truncated chart shows how some of the world’s top economies fare (note this is out of a total 133 countries):

You can see the full list here, but these are the top 68 countries (click image to view larger):

Perhaps it is no surprise that Scandinavian nations top the list, along with small European and Anglophone states — these are the same countries that tend to score highly in metrics like the Human Development Index (HDI), which is a similar, though somewhat less comprehensive, measurement of societal health and progress.

Here is why Norway got the top marks:

If you look at its scorecard, it has exceptional scores across all three dimensions, having excellent access to water and sanitation, doing very well on basic education and offering great personal freedom and choice. Norway has a high GDP per capita, thanks to its abundance of natural resources. But this isn’t always the case. Many resource-rich countries — from Kuwait to Angola — don’t share the benefits of wealth so well and show low social progress relative to their GDP per capita. It may be the case that, because natural resource wealth doesn’t require the same investments in human and social capital as broad-based economic growth, there isn’t the same incentive for governments to make those investments. But whatever the reason may be, Norway should be a role model for other resource-rich countries.

Of course, critics will point out that Norway, like most of its fellow high scorers, is a small, fairly homogenous place with a long history social and ethnic cohesion (although several other high-ranking countries, like Australia and Canada, are comparatively larger and more diverse). But either way it is something to consider.

Also worth noting is the number of fairly poor and developing countries that perform pretty well in the index, relative to their per capita GDP. Of particular note is Costa Rica, which outdoes countries like Italy and South Korea despite having half as much GDP per capita.

Costa Rica is the biggest aggregate over-performer, showing strength across all the dimensions. The key lesson here is that building social progress takes persistence. Costa Rica has had strong education, health and welfare systems for a long time, as well as a long democratic tradition. SPI measures outcomes — life expectancy, literacy rate — not inputs, like laws passed or money spent. There are no cheats or quick fixes.

Here are the top “overachievers” that managed to perform fairly well relative to their GDP per capita.

Note the following caveat:

For some countries, over-performance may actually be a sign of economic decline rather than progress. Overperformance is relative to GDP per capita, and GDP tends to rise and fall quickly, whereas SPI moves more slowly. If a country’s GDP per capita falls rapidly while SPI takes much longer to decline, its performance relative to GDP per capita may look like it is improving. The over-performers of the former Soviet Union illustrate this point: Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have not done well economically over the last 20 to 25 years, but their social indicators are better than expected because of the legacy of investments in basic services made when they were part of the Soviet Union.

Anyway, back to the focus of the CNN article, which was the United States’ relatively low performance. Though sixteenth place is hardly catastrophic, it is a lot less than it should be given both its sheer wealth, abundant land and natural resources, and amazing economic and technological capacity.

The U.S., the world’s biggest economy, scores poorly across many criteria and ranks behind countries with lower GDP per capita — including Canada and the U.K.

It is leading the way in only a handful of measures, including people’s satisfaction with affordable housing, freedom of speech, and access to advanced education.

But the U.S. is failing in all health and wellness indicators, which include life expectancy, obesity, suicide rates, and personal safety.

Here is a visual representation of the resultS:

social progress where us stands

The U.S. is hardly the only laggard despite its high GDP. Here are other countries that fall short despite their economic and financial resources (click to enlarge):

The Social Progress Imperative had this to say about the lackluster results of wealthy countries like the U.S., France, and Italy:

The U.S. has some of the best healthcare in the world — but not for everyone. We see that exclusion across the U.S.’ scorecard: lack of access to health care, lack of access to education, lack of access to information, lack of access to safety and even — relative to other rich country peers — lack of access to piped water.

Meanwhile, France and Italy have an important factor in common: both show weakness in opportunity, with low scores on private property rights, freedom of religion and tolerance of minorities. In addition, Italy’s scorecard shows inflated levels of corruption, while France’s shows the issue of discrimination against minorities. Both also are relatively weak on access to higher education.

One final note: it seems like fast-growing economies like China underperform on social progress. That’s because their new wealth has not yet translated into better social outcomes: investments in education and healthcare may take time to bear fruit, or they haven’t been made yet.

In short, every country has particular challenges or shortcomings bringing down its full potential, and the SPI helps to pinpoint where the most work is needed. The U.S. can offer tremendous opportunities to its citizens, but is bedeviled by the unequal way in which its resources and institutional accesses are distributed; indeed, many of the other countries that underperform have similarly high rates of inequality.

So what do you think about the SPI and its results?


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