A new way to measure progress

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Canada ranked as seventh most socially advanced nation in a major new social index that stakes claim as “GDP’s sibling.”
Apr 02 2014.   By: Michael Green

In the wake of the global financial crisis, countries are looking increasingly at ways beyond the purely economic to measure their progress. In this vein, a new way of looking at how we’re doing by assessing outcomes of social progress has ranked Canada as the world’s seventh most socially advanced nation overall and top of the G8.

From assessments of tolerance and inclusion and an evaluation of citizens’ access to advanced education, Canada scores very strongly — ranking ninth and second globally. But on measures such as obesity — nearly one in four Canadians are classified as obese according to the World Health Organization — there is still work to do.

Five years since the global financial crisis first spread around the world few people have not been touched by it. If the public response to these upheavals — embodied in the Occupy Movement — has taught us anything, it’s that people feel like the economic system is sometimes stacked against them. Even the refrain “global financial crisis” fails to acknowledge the subsequent social crisis that continues to blight the lives of millions of people all over the world.

It’s against this backdrop that the Social Progress Index has been developed. Eighty years after the other metric with which we’re so familiar — GDP — was first conceived, the new index is designed to offer economists, governments and businesses another way to measure national performance. The challenge now is to use this compelling, credible and rich new analysis to inform policy-making and investment decisions.

This year’s findings present a broadly positive picture of life in Canada. On political rights, religious tolerance and freedom of religion, the country ranks top globally. Of the 132 countries assessed, researchers found that Canada has among the world’s lowest homicide rates, the lowest levels of violent crime and the highest upper secondary school enrollment levels. Of course, it does under-perform on some measures. In addition to the high level of obesity (Canada is the 100th most obese nation on Earth), mobile telephone subscriptions per 100 people run at a little over 80 per cent — 99th globally. Like many other rich countries, Canada faces challenges on ecosystem sustainability finishing 51st overall.

Our hope is that the Social Progress Index will be the catalyst for policy change. But that depends on how policy-makers and the global business community choose to interpret and act upon this data. In this respect, there’s an encouraging trend at work. A growing number of economists have begun to question whether GDP is sufficient to measure national success. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi released their report “Mismeasuring our Lives,” which argued: “If we have the wrong metrics, we will strive for the wrong things.” By measuring real things that matter to people’s lives, the Social Progress Index tries to get the metrics right so that we, as a society, can strive for the right things.

This willingness to question the value of GDP shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: its architect Simon Kuznets made clear that his measure was only a limited economic lens through which to assess progress. “The welfare of a nation,” he wrote in 1934, “can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP.” The Social Progress Index has been developed, not because GDP is bad, but because it is limited. Together, GDP and the Social Progress Index present a balanced measure of a country’s social and economic progress, reflecting both social, environmental and community assets, as well as economic assets.

It took many years for GDP to be adopted globally as the de facto measure of economic prosperity. So it will take time for the Social Progress Index to gain recognition as what I hope will be the de facto measure of social progress. Economic issues might continue to dominate the news headlines, but other factors determine most people’s daily experiences. Many of those are captured by the Social Progress Index and some of these — as we’ve found — require greater attention.

 

Michael Green is Executive Director of the Social Progress Imperative, which launched the new Social Progress Index this week:www.socialprogressimperative.org/data/spi.

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