SPI: A radical new way to measure and drive social progress

Last week, Johannesburg was host to the One Young World summit, an annual event that gathers young people from across the globe to debate and formulate solutions to humanity's most pressing problems. No youth-dominated event outside the Olympic Games brings together more countries than One Young World. As this next generation debates how to make this (young) world a better place, it begs the question of how we measure a nation's success.

Whenever we turn on the news or open a newspaper, particularly in these straightened economic times, we're often confronted with data about economic growth – gross domestic product (GDP) – the generally unchallenged benchmark of a nation's "progress". The economic downturn has made policy-makers all over the globe even more focused on a small set of economic indicators as a barometer of progress. But what GDP fails to measure – and what economic growth alone cannot guarantee – are those very things that matter most to average people, like opportunity, security, and health. These are tough concepts to measure, but we need to recognise that economic growth alone is a poor measure of progress. We need a better yardstick.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, at the time GDP was first conceived, it was a useful signpost on the path out of a catastrophic economic slump that makes today's global economic problems look like a mere blip. What we have learned in recent years is that economic growth alone is not sufficient to bring sustained improvement to the lives of all citizens. Too often the gains from growth have been gobbled up by the wealthy few. The GDP is just too crude a guide to building a better society for all.

We need a way to measure whether our nations are progressing, in terms of the real things that matter to real people: Do I have a home? Can I get an education? Can I get on in life free from discrimination or persecution? A comprehensive set of integrated indicators would provide a signal as to whether national policies and programmes are really moving us in the right direction. It's for this reason that the Social Progress Index was launched earlier this year. Created by Harvard Professor Michael E Porter and a team of luminaries from the private and philanthropic sectors, the index measures a country in terms of social outcomes, not economic proxies.

I'm the first to acknowledge that an increase in a nation's GDP can and often does create the conditions that allow countries to make social progress, but an increase in GDP alone cannot guarantee this other change. That's why I and a growing movement are calling on governments, businesses and civil society to look together at the Social Progress Index alongside GDP to get a more complete and accurate view of what's really happening in a country.

The findings for South Africa are instructive. Of the 50 nations measured in the pilot year of the index, South Africa ranked 39th overall, well below countries that are no more economically advanced. Costa Rica, for example, has the same GDP per capita as South Africa but ranks 12th overall, 27 places higher, in terms of social progress.

There was also a wide variation between different indicators. South Africa's most impressive ranking (24th overall) was in the field of "opportunity", where we measured 14 variables, including political rights, access to higher education and basic religious freedoms. Yet when it came to "basic human needs" and its variables such as access to piped water and child mortality, South Africa performed far less well – ranking 42nd overall and 47th specifically for "personal safety".

This last statistic is worth dwelling on. Since GDP records every monetary transaction as positive, crime actually adds to the GDP due to the need for things like locks and other security measures, increased police protection, property damage, and medical costs. Similarly when it comes to healthcare, spending alone does not necessarily equate to better quality of service for users. Indeed, in 2011 South Africa spent 8.5% of its total GDP expenditure on health, yet our index ranks it 42nd on our measure of "health and wellness" – which looked at criteria including availability of quality healthcare and cancer death rates. 

The young people who gathered in Johannesburg understood that governments, business and civil society can all work together to improve the lives of citizens. The Social Progress Index is a way of both measuring and facilitating this–enabling bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, and advocates alike to measure what matters to citizens and develop policies and approaches to drive social progress. 

When polled, 76% of delegates at last week's conference said they were optimistic that their generation will leave the world in a "better state than when it was passed onto them". There is reason to be optimistic. After each summit, many of the One Young World Ambassadors return to their organisations and set about creating change from within. It is my hope that the Social Progress Index will be a tool that these young leaders can use to build a better future for all and prove their optimism well founded.

Michael Green is an economist and writer based in London. He is the executive director of the Social Progress Imperative.

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