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Sweden tops new 50-nation social progress index

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 11 Apr 2013 13:06 GMT
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By Astrid Zweynert

OXFORD, England (AlertNet) - Social progress is a powerful driver of economic prosperity, according to an index launched on Thursday, with Sweden and the United Kingdom ranked first and second and Ethiopia last.

The Social Progress Index (SPI), a new measure of human wellbeing, uses original research and data from the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and other sources to rank 50 countries on 52 indicators, including nutrition, sanitation, ecosystem sustainability and personal freedom.

"In both economic and business development, our understanding of success has been incomplete," Michael Porter, professor at Harvard Business School, told delegates at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, where the index was launched.

"Previous efforts to go beyond economic measurement alone have laid important groundwork, but we need a more holistic, comprehensive, and rigorous approach," said Porter, a leading authority on competitive strategy who helped design the index. "The Social Progress Index is an attempt to address these gaps and opportunities."

The global debate about development has been focused on gross domestic product (GDP), an approach that had proved insufficient, said Porter, as it provides little information about the wellbeing of a nation but focuses on economic output instead.

Some of the biggest opportunities for business are in tackling social issues and social challenges, Porter said, and the SPI could be a powerful tool in helping government, business and civil society leaders to decide which social issues to prioritise.

The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 have illustrated the "shortcomings of economic growth as a proxy for social progress," said Porter.

"We've long understood that while economic development is beneficial for social progress, generally, it's not sufficient," said Porter. "Separating business and competition from social progress and social issues was a big mistake."

No country scored in the top half for all 12 components of the index, which are: nutrition and basic medical care; air, water and sanitation; shelter; personal safety; access to basic knowledge; access to information and communication; health and wellness; ecosystem sustainability; personal rights; access to higher education; personal freedom and choice; and equity and inclusion.

Germany ranked fifth, the United States sixth, and Japan eighth, enjoying nearly double the score of the countries at the bottom of the table, which - apart from Ethiopia -  include Nigeria and Uganda.

A low ranking on environmental sustainability (48) pulled down the United States' overall ranking in the index. Other resource-rich countries, such as Australia and Canada were also poorly placed for environmental sustainability (46 and 47 respectively).

The index showed that it is possible to achieve a high level of social progress at a relatively modest income level, provided that effective policies are in place to tackle social issues.

Costa Rica, ranked 12 overall, delivered the highest social progress at the lowest average income level. China, at 31, fell down on opportunity, while Russia, at 32, got low marks on meeting basic needs. Low marks on safety hit the ratings of countries such as Mexico and South Africa.

Ghana and Nigeria are similar in size, but Ghana is shown to be more effective in terms of achieving progress.

Other indices used to measure a nation's wealth and wellbeing include the United Nations Human Development Index, the Legatum Prosperity Index and the OECD’s Better Life Index. 

In comparison, the SPI separates economic growth from human wellbeing, treating prosperity as a means to social progress, not an end in itself. It counts only social outcomes, or results, rather than inputs, such as health care spending or public policy.

Health spending does not have a strong correlation with health outcomes, according to the index. The United States, which has the highest per capita spending on health care, ranked only 11th on health and wellness, behind Canada, which ranked 4th overall.

Rwanda ranked 46th overall but was ninth in primary school enrolment. Mozambique, in 47th place overall, ranked 14th in equality and inclusion. India ranked the lowest (43) of all Asian countries.

A new organisation, the Social Progress Imperative, has been created to support the development of the SPI and help to integrate it into corporate and governmental thinking. The Social Progress Imperative is backed by the Skoll Foundation, Cisco, Deloitte, Compartamos Banco, and Fundación Avina. 

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