The Social Progress Imperative recently released its 2014 Social Progress Index, ranking the United States in 16th place among 132 countries.
Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, a Republican who led the report team, told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that he was surprised by the ranking. “I think this was not the picture of America that I think many of us Americans have,” said Porter.
The United States ranked particularly low in health and wellness, coming in at 70th place, and ecosystem sustainability, 69th place. In the category of access to basic knowledge, the US ranked 39th, although it ranked 1st in access to advanced education, perhaps showing a relative lack of access to primary and secondary education among vulnerable populations.
In terms of access to information and communication, the US ranked surprisingly low at 23rd place, coming in 83rd on mobile telephone subscriptions, 21st on freedom of the press, and 17th on internet use. “At some level in America, we have incredible access to information and communication,” said Porter, “but if you look at objective measures of whether that’s penetrated very broadly throughout our population and to, really, all of our citizens, that’s where we start to come up short.”
The index evaluated 132 countries on 54 social and environmental indicators, taking into account basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity. It defines social progress as “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential” [PDF].
Using this framework, the three top-performing countries on social progress are New Zealand, Switzerland, and Iceland. The rest of the top ten include several Northern European nations, Canada and Australia. The United States falls into the second tier of countries, in company with Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and France. Yemen and Chad fell in the fifth and lowest-performing tier.
The index demonstrates that economic development alone is not sufficient to explain social progress outcomes. While the index shows a positive correlation with economic performance, there are other factors in play.
“A society which fails to address basic human needs, equip citizens to improve their quality of life, erodes the environment, and limits opportunity for its citizens is not succeeding. Economic growth without social progress results in lack of inclusion, discontent, and social unrest,” the report states.
Its authors aims to create a more holistic framework for measuring national performance that can be used by leaders, and they envision a “world in which social progress sits alongside economic prosperity as the twin scorecards of success.”