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When It Comes to Social Progress, the Average Human Lives in Cuba

A newly released index measures social progress across 133 countries, independent of economics.

There is no shortage of indices measuring and comparing the diverse experience of being a human in 2015. But there’s one thing that studies like the OECD Better Life Index, Gross National Happiness Index, and the Human Development Index all have in common: money. Or more specifically, the inclusion of gross domestic product (GDP) or or gross national income as a defining metric.

The idea behind the Social Progress Index, released this week by the U.K.-based Social Progress Imperative, is slightly different. Measuring 133 countries across 52 indicators, the SPI is the only data-driven index measuring social progress and human wellbeing that doesn’t take economic growth into account. In a world where global development projects increasingly fall under a model of export-led GDP growth, the SPI is out to prove that GDP is not always destiny.

SPI’s executive director Michael Green, who formerly worked on development projects for the U.K. government, explains why this is useful.

“By taking out economic indicators, you can then look at the relationship between economic and social [factors] as two independent variables,” Green said. “We’re in no way anti-economic growth, but understanding the relationship between the two helps us see that it’s possible to still have social progress without a lot of economic growth.”

Take, for example, Uruguay and Costa Rica, which are ranked 24th and 28th on the SPI list, respectively. Both of these countries over-perform relative to their GDP, meaning that despite having relatively low economic standing, they are exceeding their peers when it comes to providing social wellbeing for their citizens.

So what are Uruguay and Costa Rica doing right, according to the index? The SPI measures social progress under three dimensions—opportunity, basic human needs, and foundations of wellbeing—each of those with their own four sub-components, covering areas like personal safety, shelter, ecosystem sustainability, and access to advanced education. On a global scale, the world is performing best on nutrition and basic medical care as well as access to basic knowledge (both of which were Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2000). Conversely, most countries falter when it comes to personal rights, tolerance, and inclusion.

When it comes to the U.S., ranked 16th, the country under performs in areas of health and wellness, access to basic knowledge, and access to information and communications. Green says these findings indicate not that the U.S. doesn’t have high quality healthcare or internet infrastructure available, but that as a country it has failed to distribute these things evenly.

“Basically our findings are telling the American inequality story at a much more granular level, or in other words, where the inequality lies,” Green said. “All these failures are about the failure to provide services to everyone equally.”

As is often the case with measures of social wellbeing, northern European countries Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland predictably lead the rankings, with New Zealand and Canada also making it into the top 10. The average score for all the countries included the index was 61 (out of a possible 100). Green says this score helps determine which country typifies the most average human experience when it comes to social wellbeing.

“If you want to know what the average human life experience is like, it’s likely to be the similar to the experience of a citizen of Cuba or Kazakhstan.”

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