About five years ago, the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council proposed a new index be developed, one that would “increase the impact that social entrepreneurs, business leaders, and policy makers can have in the world.” The general idea was the new index would measure social progress and spur competition between nations to improve the environment for social innovation in much the way the Global Competitiveness Index assesses the drivers of economic productivity and prosperity and identifies nations that are most competitive.
Just 48 months later, the Social Progress Index (SPI) was born. The beta version of the index debuted in 2013 and focused on measuring the extent to which 50 countries met the non-economic needs of their citizens. The 2014 SPI gauged 54 social, health, and environmental factors across 132 countries, considering only outputs (like literacy) and not inputs (like spending on education). When the numbers were tallied, New Zealand was number one – even though it’s in 25th place when measured by GDP per person (SPI, pg 62).
According to The Economist, when the results of the SPI are compared with a country’s GDP per person, its value truly becomes apparent. The publication quoted Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, who said, "There is a view that economic development and social progress go hand in hand. That's true on average, but not in particular." For example, Costa Rica and Iran have similar GDPs, but Iran falls far lower on the scale of social progress. Brazil and Kuwait are about equal in terms of social progress, although Kuwait’s GDP per person is multiples greater than that of Brazil.
So, how did the United States do? We’re in 2nd place for GDP per person and 16th for social progress (SPI, pg 63). A New York Times Op Ed piece summarized the scores like this, “In the Social Progress Index, the United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation, and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd, partly because one American in five lacks Internet access.”
Will the United States respond by improving the environment for social innovation as the developers of the index had hoped? Stay tuned. The results of the 2015 SPI will be out in just another year.
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