A new index ranks countries on aspects of well-being, including nutrition and personal rights

Michael Porter ’69 is chief architect of the Social Progress Index.
Michael Porter ’69 is chief architect of the Social Progress Index.
James Duncan Davidson

It’s long been understood that economic measures of success like gross domestic product (GDP) give a sense of a country’s well-being, but that kind of benchmark doesn’t provide a complete picture, says Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter ’69. While economic growth is correlated with a country’s social progress — the ability to provide things like basic medical care and personal rights — economic and social progress are not the same. 

Working with a team of experts, Porter served as chief architect of a new benchmark — the Social Progress Index — which was launched last April. The “beta version” of the index ranked 50 countries based on 12 components, including nutrition and basic medical care, personal safety, ecosystem sustainability, personal freedom and choice, and access to higher education. Sweden and the United Kingdom were ranked first and second. The United States came in sixth.

There have been other efforts to measure more than economic growth, but Porter said that he and his team felt the need to separate social indicators from economic ones, and pull together as many dimensions of social progress as possible.

“Social progress really is about the human condition: the ability of people to have adequate nutrition and health and live a good life and have opportunity and inclusion and all those things,” he says. “Income at the country level is an enabler of that, but it’s not a guarantee.” 

Even in wealthy countries, social progress can level out or erode, he says. For example, almost all rich countries, including the United States, rank poorly on ecosystem sustainability. And countries can have similar income levels — such as Costa Rica and South Africa — but have very different social-progress levels (Costa Rica ranks 12th on the SPI and South Africa 39th). 

Porter and the Social Progress Imperative — an organization formed to disseminate the index and its findings — are trying to turn those findings into policy changes and investments. In early September, Porter traveled to Brazil and Paraguay for meetings with policymakers and government, business, and nonprofit leaders. Paraguay, he says, was the first country formally to adopt the SPI as one of its measures of national success. 

The index is not static. By April — when the next index will come out — Porter hopes to have ranked at least 100 countries and enhanced the index. “We’re not done [with the index], and I’m sure it can be improved,” he says.