A crowded street in Nepal. Photo by: Klaatu / CC BY-NC-SA

LONDON — Countries from the global south have made the biggest gains in social progress over the past five years, according to a global index, but low-income countries still lag far behind their wealthier neighbors as worrying trends emerge.

The 2018 Social Progress Index, launched Wednesday, collects and aggregates data from 146 countries. It is intended to complement economic measures such as gross domestic product by offering a comprehensive measure of a country’s social and environmental performance based on 51 indicators.

While the index shows the average score globally has increased slightly since 2014 — up 1.66 points out of 100 — progress is mixed and there are worrying trends including declining personal rights and inclusiveness in some countries. Water and sanitation has also lagged behind other issues.

“The survey shows that the world has got better … It’s a small but significant increase … and a lot of it is taking place in emerging and developing countries, not in the traditional [places such as] North America and Europe, so there is reason to be optimistic,” said Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, which runs the index.

While the top 30 countries were all high-income, the greatest improvements were seen among countries in the global south, with countries including Nepal, Myanmar, the Gambia, Swaziland, Ethiopia, and Tanzania making the biggest strides since 2014, when the index started.

At the same time, the Central African Republic came in last place, and nine of the lowest-scoring 12 countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. The largest declines in social progress were seen in Yemen, Brazil, the United States, Thailand, Turkey, and Mauritania.

“Across the spectrum, from rich to poor, we see how some countries are much better at turning their economic growth into social progress than others,” Green said.

SPI — which was first launched in 2014 and is mainly funded by U.S. foundations including Skoll, Heron, Ford, and also Deloitte — groups indicators into three categories: Basic human needs, which includes water and sanitation, shelter, basic medical care, and personal safety; foundations of wellbeing, which includes access to basic knowledge, information and communication, and environmental quality; and opportunity, which looks at personal rights, freedoms, inclusiveness, and access to advanced education.

At the macro level, the index shows global progress in some areas but not others. Access to information and communication was up 6.27 points overall, while shelter rose by 4.75 points, and both nutrition and basic medical care, and health and wellness, rose three points globally.

However, the score for personal rights dropped by more than three points overall, declining in 75 of 146 countries surveyed. Inclusiveness scores also showed a slight decrease, declining in 46 countries.

Improvement on water and sanitation also lagged far behind. It was the lowest-performing indicator, Green said, gaining only 1.61 points over the past five years.

“WASH is a very solvable problem that at [the world’s current] level of wealth we should be doing much better on since we have the resources,” he said. “WASH does seem to be an orphan issue.”

By contrast, the global score for access to basic knowledge is closer to what would be expected given global wealth levels, which “suggests we’ve hit the last mile problem in education,” he said.

At a country level, Nepal improved its inclusiveness rating by 5.85 points, while the Gambia’s progress was driven in part by big improvements in personal safety, rising 21.51 points.

In relation to Myanmar, Green said the results were mixed. Despite the ongoing Rohingya crisis, the country’s leap up the index was largely driven by “a one-off massive catch-up in access to information,” boosting it 31.68 points in this category, although it also made progress in other areas such as nutrition and medical care. But it still ranks low down the index overall, at 107 of 146.

“We should look at this in two ways: The change [from] 2014-18 and the absolute score,” Green said. “This is important because what we are seeing in Myanmar is the intensification of a long-standing mistreatment of the Rohingya people,” which was already reflected in the original data, he said, pointing out that the country ranks among the worst in the world for violence and discrimination against minorities. There may also be an issue of data lag in the results, he added.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.