How well does your country provide for its citizens?
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H. isOW WELL of which is the human race? Which countries have citizens who are successful and who are weak? Where are people making progress and where are they slipping back? The answers to these questions often come from studying their economies. GDP per person, however, can only show so much. More important is how wealth translates into well-being. A database released on May 24 by the Social Progress Imperative, a non-profit organization, aims to show that. It ranks 170 countries on how well they provide for their citizens, using metrics other than wealth. See how they compare in our interactive chart below.
The group is not alone in measuring development with methods other than counting money. The UN Human Development Index, for example, combines GDP per person with measures of health and education. But the Social Progress Index (SPI) ignores GDP entirely. Instead, it tracks 52 indicators and groups them into three categories, to which it gives equal weight: basic human needs (such as food and water), the foundations for long-term development (education and health care) and “opportunity” (including personal rights and liberties).
The results continue to show a link between wealth and well-being: the wealthiest countries are often the ones where citizens thrive. The worst situation is in the poorest. But the data also shows that countries that have made great progress in some areas, such as meeting basic needs, are letting their citizens down in others, particularly in protecting and expanding their freedom.
The results of the SPI for 2022 put Norway in the lead, with a score of 90.7. South Sudan came last. In general, rich European countries rank among the highest, but countries in sub-Saharan Africa rank lowest.
In a separate study, the SPI shows how scores have changed between 1990 and 2020 (the most recent numbers are omitted due to differences in its methodology). After rapid progress in the 1980s and 1990s, improvements in human welfare appear to have slowed. Progress in some regions, such as Latin America, has stalled. The United States, meanwhile, is going backwards. The covid-19 pandemic seems to have hurt global progress even more since then.
East Asia and the Pacific is the region with the greatest increase in health. Taken together, countries there improved their SPI score by an average of 18 points between 1990 and 2020. Much of that was driven by the rise of China’s middle class, which showed up in higher scores on indicators for health education and provision of basic needs.
South Asia has also seen significant progress. India’s SPI score, for example, increased by 16 points over the three decades. But it is tiny Bhutan, between India and China, that has advanced the most among the 170 countries. His score jumped 30 points because he greatly increased his provisions for meeting basic human needs. That seems like a testament to the country that created “gross national happiness”, which its government prefers as a target for GDP. Venezuela, whose economy has shrunk by 75% since 2013 even as its dictator, Nicolás Maduro, tightened power, has seen the largest drop of any country in its SPI rating between 1990 and 2020.
Together with data on GDP, the SPI ranking shows that economic growth is important, but not the only determinant of social progress (see chart). China’s GDP per person increased 11-fold between 1990 and 2010; over the same period his SPI score increased by 45%. India achieved a similar jump in its score, from a slightly lower base, with a third of China’s economic growth.
America is another country where economic success is accompanied by decline in other areas. Despite the fact that the richest citizens are in the G7, a club of rich democracies, its SPI score, of 87.6, is the lowest in that group. Since 2016 America’s SPI score has steadily declined even though its economy has grown faster than that of other rich countries. That is largely due to worse scores in the “opportunity” category, which includes measures of discrimination and access to further education. Worryingly, America’s performance reflects a trend: progress on personal rights is stalling around the world. Money, it seems, is not the root of all good.■