Forget GDP: The Social Progress Index Measures National Well-Being

What’s the best way to tell how a country is doing (and serving its citizens)? It’s not just a measure of economic output, that’s for sure. This new index tracks everything from opportunity to health to sustainability. Guess where the U.S. ranks.

Forget GDP: The Social Progress Index Measures National Well-Being
Balloons via Shutterstock

For many years, the powers that be thought that economic indicators were the ultimate measure of a country’s well-being. That’s starting to change. As we have discussed before, the general happiness of a country doesn’t always correlate with its wealth. In fact, economic indicators don’t match up with a number of important indicators about well-being.


Hence the Social Progress Index, an initiative from The Social Progress Imperative and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter that examines how 50 countries perform on 52 indicators related to basic human needs, the foundations of well-being, and opportunity. The top country: Sweden. The U.S. doesn’t even rank in the top five (it comes it at number six).

The Social Progress Index was hatched at a World Economic Forum working group, where participants decided that they needed common frameworks to measure the problems they were working on. “The big conceptual step was to say that if we’re trying to measure the well-being of a society, the big thing we have to do is actually look at outcomes directly rather than proxy of economic indicators,” explains Michael Green, the executive director of the Social Progress Imperative. “We’re looking at social and environmental outcomes directly, which means that the index isn’t determined by economic factors.”

These social and environmental components include personal safety, ecosystem sustainability, health and wellness, shelter, sanitation, equity and inclusion, and personal freedom and choice. Each component is calculated based on specific outcomes–health and wellness, for example, is determined by life expectancy, obesity, cancer death rate, and other factors.

The 50 countries in the list were chosen because they’re a representative sample of countries around the world. They also encompass 75% of the world’s population. So who made it to the top? Here are the countries with the highest ratings on the SPI (click to zoom). A full list is available on the SPI website.

There are a handful of important trends that we can glean from the index. Almost all of the wealthiest countries do poorly on the ecosystem sustainability component. “The U.S., Canada, and Australia are all struggling with that environmental measure generally,” notes Green. Also, he says, “although economic growth is broadly correlated with social progress, there are departures from that.” One example: Costa Rica (12) performs much better than South Africa (39), even though they have a similar GDP.

While the U.K. and Sweden didn’t perform well on the United Nations Human Development Index, they are at the top of the SPI because they have top marks across the three foundations measured by the index.


Governments are already paying attention to the index. This month, Paraguay agreed to incorporate the SPI into its national development framework. But Heather Hancock, managing partner of talent and brand at Deloitte, says that the index will be useful in the business world as well. “We believe this will help businesses have a framework to articulate their own impact,” she says. “We have been having this conversation in a more generic way over the past two and a half to three years about how business can better articulate the purpose that it serves–how business can collectively shape influence and be a co-collaborator in some of the bigger social progress issues.”

Deloitte reported in a recent Millenial Innovation Survey that 71% of millennials think that business innovations can directly improve society. The SPI framework could help businesses articulate exactly how their services benefit society–and in the process, gain some credibility among social impact-minded customers.

Stay tuned: the SPI will continue to add more countries as the years go on.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.