Economic growth is important to improving lives. But economic prosperity alone isn’t enough. The other side of the coin is social prosperity.
But what, exactly, is “social prosperity”?
The work we do builds our economy, but our lives build our society. And it’s the quality of our lives that determines the quality of our society.
In a socially prosperous society, the basic human needs of all citizens are met. Individual citizens have the power to make changes to improve their quality of life. The environment is protected through business/government partnerships.
Measuring a country’s social progress independently of gross domestic product gives us a lot of insight. The Social Progress Index released earlier this year does just that.
The report (produced by the nonprofit Social Progress Imperative) looked at 133 countries, measuring these three groups of social indicators:
Basic human needs: These include nutrition, medical care, access to water, and sanitation and shelter.
Foundations of well-being: Access to basic knowledge, access to information and communications, and ecosystem sustainability.
Opportunity: personal freedom, access to advanced education, personal rights, and tolerance and inclusion.
What did we learn from the 2015 SPI?
Social prosperity is directly related to economic prosperity—we knew that. So wealthier countries tend to enjoy more social prosperity than poorer countries.
But the SPI actually showed that GDP and social progress aren’t always so closely correlated. Costa Rica rated higher than Italy, for example, even though the South American nation has barely one-third of Italy’s per-capita GDP.
Some countries seem to be better at leveraging their wealth into social progress even if they don’t have a lot of wealth to begin with. For example, Rwanda made gender equality, education and healthcare for children top priorities, and it earned them a high score compared to many companies with similar wealth.
Let’s look at how some other countries did in the ranking:
India and China: Many emerging economies have not seen growth in social prosperity mirror their economic growth. Fast-growing, emerging economies often lag in social factors because their new wealth has not yet translated into better social conditions.
Norway, Switzerland and Sweden have the highest rankings overall, with New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Demark, Australia, Iceland and The Netherlands rounding out the top ten.
New Zealand has the 25th-ranked GDP in the world. Per capita, that’s half of Norway’s, making their higher rank on social progress quite impressive.
United Arab Emirates was rated as the country that treats its women with the most respect. This result seemed to surprise a lot of people, but anecdotal evidence confirms it: Women are rarely harassed in the UAE because the culture simply doesn’t tolerate it.
Costa Rica (12) ranked higher than South Africa (39), even though they have a similar GDP.
United States ranks 16 overall. Problems in the US that were cited include lack of access to health care, education, information and safety.
Ireland has a GDP per capita rank of 5, yet is ranked 15th out of 132 on the SPI, which again shows the disparity between economic prosperity and social prosperity.
France and Italy: Both “Old Europe” countries scored relatively weak on access to higher education. Government corruption hindered Italy’s score; discrimination against minorities is a problem for France.
What are some of the issues holding back nations where social prosperity is rated low?
We tend to see political instability as a factor, as well as slower economic growth and environmental disregard.
Although GDP and economic statistics will continue to be important in measuring a country’s success, the SPI is being adopted as a tool for citizens to hold their leaders accountable. Even corporations and municipalities are starting to use it to do their long-term planning.
What’s my take?
I think measuring finance and output will always be important, but measuring social progress shows us what it’s all about—how a society uses the resources they have to improve people’s lives, and how government leaders value the happiness and health of their citizens.
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