Index of doom doesn’t reflect SA’s reality

The headline ran: "South Africa comes last in sustainable development index" (Mail & Guardian, September 20) – music to the ears of the nation's doom-mongers, particularly because other, poorer African nations such as Ghana and Uganda topped the poll. 

But, on closer inspection, the Standard Chartered Development Index is a poor guide to South Africa's future development. The "rainbow nation" faces its own challenges and should be looking to other emerging economies as a guide.

The index has two flaws. First, it only looks at the change in indicators, such as economic growth and primary school enrollment over the past 12 years. As a result, poorer countries do better, because nations that started further behind tend to catch up faster. Second, the range of indicators is narrowly focused on a few basic measures of wellbeing, and this gives a distorted picture of both the challenges South Africa faces and some of its achievements. By contrast, the Social Progress Index provides a holistic measure of nations' social performance against a much wider array of measures. Under this measure, in 2013, South Africa was ranked 41st out of 50 countries; it outperformed many of its neighbours. 

The good news from the Social Progress Index is that South Africa performs best on "opportunity" (a factor that is strongly correlated with life satisfaction), scoring well on measures of rights and inclusion. Compared even with other middle-income countries, South Africa performs pretty well on some basic needs – nutrition, for example.

The Social Progress Index highlights the immediate and well-known challenge of HIV that is pushing average life expectancy down. This speaks to a wider failure of the healthcare system for all citizens. Maternal and child mortality rates and the prevalence of TB are shockingly high for a country of South Africa's wealth. Yet so too is the nation's obesity rate, which is higher than that of many rich countries, including the United States, and imposes a huge cost in terms of morbidity and mortality.

Three other issues are crucial for South Africa's future development, based on the Social Progress Index analysis: first, violent crime, where South Africa ranks 47th out of 50 nations and which is a particular burden on the lives of the poorest; second, environmental sustainability, where South Africa's performance is worse than many other emerging economies; and, third, education and access to information. 

On this last issue, South Africa does need to get more children into school, but that is just a part of the challenge. Widening access to the internet and getting more people into higher education are also urgent challenges highlighted by the index.

This is a long list of challenges, but the index has an optimistic message: South Africa has the resources to address these challenges. This is evident when we compare it with a country such as Costa Rica, which has a similar gross domestic product per capita to South Africa's, but ranks 12th – 29 places higher – in the Social Progress Index. Social problems are not inevitable; they can be tackled with the right will. 

Tackling those problems is not just a matter of big government. Social Progress Index scores show little relation to how big or active governments are. 

In The Solution Revolution, William Eggers and Paul Macmillan describe how social problems are increasingly being tackled by partnerships between the government, business and civil society. Business, for example, has a strong self-interest in tackling crime. Rather than asking how much government spends on a social problem, we need to ask whether the solution is effective and whether the right people to solve it are around the table.

Measures such as the Standard Chartered index and the United Nation's millennium development goals tend to focus attention on a few basic needs. This is not wrong per se, but such measures narrow the debate about development. South Africa, like other emerging nations, is actually fighting on two fronts: against the social problems of poverty and the social problems of getting richer. Leaders from the government, business and civil society need to work together to help South Africa to get on the path of true sustainable development.

Michael Green is an economist and the executive director of the Social Progress Imperative.

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