The Social Progress Index

The Social Progress Index is a very useful tool. I only recently became aware of it, but it seems to provide a pretty interesting profile of the state of the world’s peoples. It’s apparently the brainchild of Harvard professor Michael Porter, and his attempts to go beyond the narrow economistic measures of social well-being utilised in other indices.

The reason it came to my attention at all is because it has become an issue in the present Canadian federal election.

The recently released results of the world ranking of social progress for 2015 put Canada in about 6th (or 7th) position. Of course, the incumbent government and it’s supporters have been touting this ranking as proof of the controversial Harper government’s overall record, omitting to mention that it is, in fact, a lapse from 4th position that Canada held in the SPI in 2013. It would seem, rather, that we are going in the wrong direction and perhaps slightly off course.

The index utilises 12 measures, organised in three categories of four measures. That foursome arrangement in three categories is a pretty interesting approach in itself, but I’m uncertain at this time whether there’s much significance for that for the quadrilateral logic of the “cross of reality”, or whether the four elements of each category can actually be mapped to it in terms of its time and space coordinates. Some measures seem amenable and others not so evidently the case.

The three categories, as you will note, are Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Well-Being, and Opportunity. Each category is judged according to four measures each for twelve measures in total. In the case of Canada, when you scrutinise the values for each of the four in each category, it provides a pretty interesting profile of the state of the nation.

Canada ranks 6th or 7th largely because of its high scores in the Opportunity category: Personal Rights (11th), Personal Freedoms (9th), Tolerance and Inclusion (3rd) and Access to Advanced Education (3rd). Evidently, this is a reflection of the emphasis that policy puts on the individual and individualism. What has dragged Canada down a bit from its former ranking is poorer performance in the other two categories, and which reflects the bias in the government’s policies.

In the category Basic Human Needs, Canada’s scores are mixed: Nutrition and Medical is only 28th (despite the perception of Canada’s Health Care System being a model). In Water and Sanitation, Canada is only 24th (despite the reality of Canada being a fresh water-rich country!). the situation improves for provision of Shelter (7th overall) and for Personal Safety (8th overall).

It’s in the category Foundations of Well-Being that Canada seems to perform poorly now, although a great deal of political spin has been used to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear here. Apparently, “Foundations of Well-Being” refers specifically to the state of the commonwealth — the public weal — rather than to the individual (Opportunity) or the Body (Basic Human Needs). This is the category that most interests me when we refer to “Social Progress Index”, and it’s clear that this is the category where Canada has begun to lag behind owing to unbalanced policy preferences and implicit political bias against the “public domain”.

In the Foundations of Well-Being, Access to Basic Knowledge is only 18th. Access to Information and Communications (including “transparency and accountability”) is a dismal 25th. Health and Wellness is only 17th, and Ecosystem Sustainability is an abysmal 48th. That latter measure is the result of you-know-what, I think — the tar sands, and perhaps destructive forestry practices (although the latter, it is claimed, are improving). But hey! (say the pundits viewing through rose-coloured glasses) we’re doing much better than Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Russia, Sudan, or Iran! Hardly a boast worth making, I would think, unless you’re trying to spin the results.

And for some reason, the Anglosphere more generally has a poorer record of Ecosystem Sustainability than other jurisdictions, so much that one wonders whether there is an ingrained or implicit cultural antipathy to Nature, or perhaps owing to the lingering legacy and influence of the English Industrial Revolution.

So the Social Progress Index certainly reveals attitudes towards the body (Basic Needs), attitudes towards the Commonwealth (Foundations of Well-Being), and attitudes towards the individual (Opportunity) and, seemingly, the implicit biases in public policy that reflect those attitudes, areas where policy is amiss or even absent from consciousness, creating an unbalanced situation. And in the heat and rhetoric of the current election campaign, I can see that is being represented in the policy stances of the competing parties.

You might find it interesting to compare your own country results and profile with the cultural, political or policy biases of your own jurisdiction. I think the SPI is very revealing of the overall social situation and state of consciousness.



One response to “The Social Progress Index”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I might add to the foregoing, that I find the SPI’s organisation of the 12 vectors of social progress into three categories of four each (the numbers 3, 4, 12) itself pretty interesting. I’m sure it’s not just random or arbitrary, but is well thought out according to an implicit pattern.

    That pattern suggests the “twelve winds” of the spirit in medieval cartography, and perhaps also Rosenstock-Huessy’s “twelve tones of the spirit” as well. I’m going to have to ponder that one, though.

    If interested Rosenstock-Huessy’s essay “The Twelve Tones of the Spirit” is published as Chapter VI in his book (online) called I Am an Impure Thinker, and can be accessed at

    I might have more to say about the Social Progress Index at length (or maybe not).

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