From Per Capita to Pro Capita: Launch of the Social Progress Imperative

Continuing our series of Skoll World Forum posts, James Tilbury shares his thoughts on a session about the Social Progress Index.



In 1934 a young economists called Simon Kuznets developed the first comprehensive measure of national income: Gross Domestic Profit, or GDP. He explicitly warned against using this measure to judge the success of an economy stating that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income”. And yet, even eighty years later, we are still using GDP as the most commonly cited proxy for wellbeing within a society. Today at the Skoll World Forum an alternative measure of national success was launched: The Social Progress Index.

Michael Green, Executive Director of the Social Progress Imperative, opened the session by sharing their mission: to improve the lives of millions of people around the world by offering concrete, actionable information to governments, civil society and social entrepreneurs. This information comes in the form of the Social Progress Index, which takes into account 52 different indicators of a country’s social performance.

Michael Porter, who chairs the Social Progress Imperative, will be the first person to tell you that this is nothing new. Alternative indicators of country performance already exist, from the Human Development Index to the Happy Planet Index. The Social Progress Index just does this a lot better. Whereas the main existing indexes are made up of 3 or 4 indicators, the Social Progress Imperative is made up of 52. It also makes a decided move away from “input” variables such as GDP, and seeks to instead use “output” variables such as nutrition and access to basic knowledge.

No-one is claiming that the Social Progress Imperative is perfect, least of all its management team. It is their hope to engage a wide range of stakeholders to improve the index over time. This is another key differentiator of the initiative; they want to make an impact and not just release a new dataset. To this end they are creating networks of people around the world to engage with this data and take it into account in their daily decision-making.

The results of the index were released at one minute past midnight last night. It will surprise no-one that Switzerland topped the charts. It may surprise many participants of the Skoll World Forum that the United Kingdom ranked second though. Cleary weather or phone reception is not taken into account.

A major finding of the study was the lack of correlation between GDP and performance on the Social Progress Index. After a GDP of about $30,000 per capita there was no correlation between GDP and performance. Even below that mark though there was a wide disparity between countries of similar GDP. For example, Costa Rica ranked 12th on the index, but 23rd in terms of income.

Will this be the tool that allows us as a society to move away from an outdated fixation with GDP, and towards measures progress on issues that actually matter? Time will only tell but we can influence the outcome by backing initiatives like the Social Progress Imperative.

Author, James Tilbury has a Masters of Environmental Change and Management from the University of Oxford and is a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship. He is currently setting up a sustainability consulting firm, which he hopes will provide a vehicle for helping organisations improve their social and environmental performance.