Measuring social progress

Development is not only about income. The Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen has argued that human beings constitute the ‘ends’ of economic activity, rather than its means.

In Development As Freedom, Sen writes: “Development is not about raising GNP. No one wants money for its own sake. One wants money for something else, including good health. To be free to lead a good life, not be cut off prematurely, not to have to suffer escapable ailments.”

Inspired by Amartya Sen and Mahbubul Haq, who jointly developed the concept of “human development”, many international agencies such as the UNDP and the World Bank regularly publish indexes that measure and rank country performance. Such efforts variously measure a range of indicators, including life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, nutrition, access to water, gender equality, political rights and electricity.

The Social Progress Index for 2019 (, published last week by the Social Progress Imperative, provides for interesting reading. The index aims to move “beyond GDP” and tracks and ranks countries according to their social and environmental performances. It defines social progress as “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the bulling blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain their quality of lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential”.

Accordingly, the social progress framework focuses on three interrelated issues: 1) the extent to which countries provide for its people’s most essential needs including nutrition and basic medical care, water and sanitation, shelter and personal safety; 2) whether the building blocks to enhance and sustain wellbeing (e.g. access to basic knowledge, access to information, health and well-being and environmental quality) are in place for individuals and communities; 3) whether individuals enjoy the opportunity to reach their full potential in relation to personal rights, personal freedom and choice, inclusiveness and equality and access to advanced education.

I am extremely lucky to live in Norway, which tops the 2019 social progress rankings of 149 countries. The study also finds that although the world in general is improving, it has stagnated in personal safety issues and access to basic knowledge. An encouraging finding of the study is that several low-income countries —The Gambia, Sierra Leone and Nepal—have achieved significant social progress in recent years. Interestingly, Malawi fares better than many countries in Africa such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Angola.

While all such rankings must be taken with a pinch of salt, and there are numerous challenges related to the quality of available data, they nonetheless can provide a useful benchmark for countries to compare their performance with others and identify areas of strength and weakness.

Share This Post