By Anand Kulkarni
With more and more economic indices and comparators now being produced, the latest Social Progress Index, produced by the Social Progress Imperative Organisation, provides some interesting counterpoints and insights.
The Social Progress Index benchmarks 133 countries on three core criteria. Additionally, it provides an overall social progress rank. The three criteria are: Basic Human Needs (Nutrition and basic medical care such as mortality and nourishment, water and sanitation, shelter, personal safety, etc.); Foundations of Well-Being (Access to basic knowledge, primary and secondary school enrollment, access to information and communications, e.g, mobile telephone subscriptions, press freedom, internet users, health and wellness such as life expectancy, obesity rate, premature death from non-communicable diseases and environmental quality); and Opportunity (personal rights, personal freedom and choice, tolerance and inclusion and access to advanced education).
Social Progress Ranking
|Overall Social Progress Rank||Basic Human Needs Rank||Foundations of Well Being Rank||Opportunity Rank|
Source: Social Progress Index 2016
The Indian Social Story
Considering a selected range of developed and emerging countries, we observe that India is only slightly ahead of Bangladesh in the overall Social Progress Rank.
She stands at 98. In comparison, Bangladesh is at 101. In this range of countries, India has the weakest position on “Foundations of Wellbeing”. Also, she stands second worst on “Opportunity”.
India has tremendous potential. Abundant with human and natural resources and reasonably strong economic growth, one would expect a better performance on social factors. However, economic performance does not account for social progress. Although there is broad correlation across countries between economic progress and social progress, in many instances, countries with similar levels of GDP per capita exhibit markedly different social progress. (Social Progress Imperative 2016).
For India, as with other countries, social progress is affected by complex factors that are beyond purely economic factors. These include, in our view, traditions and customs, poor governance, accountability and transparency in institutions, institutional inertia, vested interests and weaknesses in some of the critical foundations, such as basic education.
An Empirical Warning
Deep diving into the data for Indian performance, further reveals some disturbing conclusions. Here is the analysis, according to rank:
|Nutrition and Basic Medical Care||96|
|Water and Sanitation||95|
|Access to Basic Knowledge||92|
|Access to information and communications||109|
|Health and wellness||114|
|Personal Freedom and Choice||87|
|Access to Advanced Education||83|
|Tolerance and Inclusion||129|
Source: Social Progress Index 2016
These numbers show that India is on the bottom end of the global scale on many factors. In the case of health, we see nourishment, maternal and child mortality, premature deaths and obesity.
Personal safety entails serious crime, terrorism and trust in fellow citizens. Even tolerance and inclusion for immigrants, discrimination against minorities, religious tolerance etc. show worrying trends. These are, in essence, foundational elements of a civil society. On this basis, it is evident that India is lagging.
The right to clean air and a protected environment is also a basic human expectation. The poor performance on this end should be judged as harshly as other social indicators. Amidst the varying views on the tradeoff between the economy and the environment, the threat of climate change continues to exacerbate.
Denial about its existence will not do any good. It is true, however, that compared to its overall ranking, India does perform marginally better on personal freedom and choice.
Nevertheless, there is a threshold question: What does a marginally better performance really mean? Especially when many other related indicators such as health, safety, tolerance and opportunities are so askew?
Inclusion – Numerical and Social
While the rankings have much to commend in their intent, design and application, they could be improved even further. Measures of income/wealth inequality need to be included since inequality shapes, and is shaped, by social progress. The Social Progress Imperative Organisation specifically indicates that they are not focussing on only economic measures.
The treatment of the elderly should be considered as well. How we treat our older population is often a very good proxy for the compassion and advancement of society. Further, mental health indicators, like suicide rates, loneliness and disenfranchisement from society are equally important. The extent of volunteering and the prevalence of corruption are also socially pernicious factors.
In conclusion, what this important index shows is that India has much work to do in developing a comprehensive and cohesive social agenda, that would complement its economic agenda.
This is not to decry the various individual programs and initiatives, for example, in the area of female empowerment or raising basic education standards. Rather, this is to suggest that more and urgent social action is required, in an over-arching manner, to include and bind the whole society.
Dr. Anand Kulkarni is the Senior Manager, Planning and Research, RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, overseeing planning, analysis and strategic projects for the University. He is the Associate Editor for the Journal “International Review of Business and Economics” and a Fellow at the Centre For Policy Development in Australia.
 There are actually 160 countries considered but 27 of them do not have information for all variables.