New Social Progress Index ranks countries based on social and environmental performance

A new Social Progress Index has been designed as a complement to GDP and other economic indicators to provide a more holistic understanding of countries’ overall performance – including social and environmental performance. The Index finds that economic growth does not always result in social progress, as it ranks 132 countries based on their social and environmental performance. Higher GDP per capita does bring benefits, particularly on ‘Basic Human Needs’. But rising incomes do not guarantee improvement on ‘Ecosystem Sustainability’, ‘Health and Wellness’ and ‘Opportunity’.


The Social Progress Index uses indicators that measure outcomes — such as life expectancy, literacy, and freedom of personal choice — rather than inputs such as size of government spending or laws passed. And, because the Social Progress Index measures comprehensive social outcomes directly, separately from economic indicators, it allows us – for the first time – to examine the relationship between economic and social progress.

The Social Progress Index, created by a team led by Professor Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School, is published by US-based nonprofit the Social Progress Imperative. Professor Michael E. Porter said: “Until now, the assumption has been that there is a direct relationship between economic growth and wellbeing. However, the Social Progress Index finds that all economic growth is not equal. While higher GDP per capita is correlated with social progress, the connection is far from automatic. For similar levels of GDP, we find that some countries achieve much higher levels of social progress than others.”

According to the Index, the following are global trends:

● The Social Progress Index does show a broad positive correlation between economic performance, (measured in GDP per capita) and social progress. Countries with higher incomes tend to enjoy greater social progress: New Zealand ($25,858 *GDP per capita) ranks highest in the Index while Chad ($1,870* GDP per capita) ranks lowest.
However, the Index demonstrates that economic performance alone does not fully explain social progress. The country with the world’s highest per capita GDP in our rankings –Norway ($47,546*)–finishes in 5th ranking behind New Zealand, whose GDP per capita is almost half that of Norway’s. Similarly, at the bottom of the Index, Chad has a much higher per capita GDP ($1870*) than Liberia ($560*), that finishes in 120th ranking. This pattern is repeated at all levels of economic development: for example despite a lower level of per capita GDP Jamaica performs better than China.
The relationship between economic development and social progress changes with rising income.

  • At lower income levels, small differences in GDP are associated with large differences in social progress. For example, on ‘Water and Sanitation’ and ‘Shelter’ there is a huge leap in improved outcomes between low- and lower-middle income countries.
  • However, as countries reach high levels of income, the ‘easy’ gains in social progress arising from economic development seem to become become exhausted and further economic growth brings new social and environmental challenges. For example, on ‘Ecosystem Sustainability’–which looks at indicators like greenhouse gas emissions–high- income countries fare little better than low-income countries. Indeed, as low-income countries’ economies grow they can expect their ‘Ecosystem Sustainability’ to get worse before it improves.

For lower income countries economic growth will not necessarily result in significantly improved social progress. For example, on ‘Personal Safety’ it’s only when countries reach high-income status that homicide rates, violent crime and traffic deaths seem to significantly reduce, but even then there is a wide spread of variation between these high-income nations. Until then the improvements in ‘Personal Safety’, between low -and middle- income countries, remains stubbornly limited.
High-income levels of GDP lead to ‘Basic Human Needs’ being met, but don’t guarantee increased ‘Opportunity’ for citizens. When countries reach high-income status, on measures of ‘Opportunity’–which takes into consideration things including ‘Personal Rights’ and ‘Tolerance and Inclusion’–they do on average see significant improvements in this measure. However, there’s a wide diversity in scores between these high-income countries, much more so than on ‘Basic Human Needs’–which assesses factors including ‘Water and Sanitation’ and ‘Basic Medical Care’–and which all high-income countries score favourably on.
● The majority of countries are doing a good job in meeting their citizens’ basic medical needs and the same is true of measures such as school enrollment and adult literacy. This may suggest that
the Millenium Development Goals have had a positive impact driving social progress in these areas. To accelerate progress on issues such as ‘Personal Safety’, ‘Access to Higher Education’ and ‘Ecosystem Sustainability’, where the world is doing less well, may require a similar coordinated global effort.

Social Progress Index – country rankings

New Zealand was ranked the world’s most socially advanced country with African countries such as Botswana, South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya ranking 57th, 69th, 123rd and 103rd respectively.

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