Measuring social change with the Social Progress Imperative

June 29, 2016

As seasoned campaign strategists and data nerds, we know that old saying that “what gets measured gets managed” holds true across a range of contexts. And that is precisely why we are proud to support the launch of the 2016 Social Progress Index. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a yearly index and ranking of the world’s countries and their people — 133 countries in all, this year, covering 99 percent of the world’s population — based on how socially progressive they are. Put another way: the Index ranks each country on the quality of life provided to its residents.

For years, nations ranked according to their economic activity. But this measure doesn’t really tell us how healthy or happy people are. As Robert F. Kennedy famously noted, our gross national product “counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage….It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.”

The Social Progress Index is a step towards measuring what matters. The Index ranks countries on 53 indicators, from nutrition and basic medical care, to access to basic knowledge and information, to personal rights and tolerance and inclusion. Let’s take a look and how countries stack up:

Scandinavia tends to fare well. Finland is #1 this year, Norway was #1 last year, and five of the 12 countries that achieved “Very High” SPI scores this year are from the Nordic region. Canada (2nd), Australia (4th) and Switzerland (5th) also rank highly this year. Check out the full rankings here. It’s a really cool interactive data presentation, whether you like numbers and maps or not.

The United States ranks 19th this year, a result characterized as “disappointing” by SPI itself (which, it should be noted, is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization). As a country, we score highly on “access to advanced education,” for instance, but poorly on “personal safety,” “health and wellness” and “environmental quality.” Too many traffic deaths and homicides, a huge amount of healthcare spending with a poor return, and way too many greenhouse gas emissions drag the country’s ranking down. Michael Green, Executive Director of the Social Progress Imperative, said: “It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that [U.S.] citizens are getting a pretty raw deal when it comes to translating the country’s wealth into social progress.”

We find the Index particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, SPI recognizes that in order to advance social change, we have to learn to measure it, so we know what it does (and does not) look like. The Index gives the entire world a shared vocabulary for understanding and communicating about social progress. This vocabulary is an essential communications tool. As communicators, we recognize the importance speaking and understanding the same language as our target audience. When we’re on the same page, we can make progress.

Second, SPI recognizes that true social progress requires a holistic approach. Sustainability and equity are mutually inclusive. Opportunity, tolerance and inclusion and personal rights are as fundamental to quality of life as clean air and clean water. This reality is driving an evolution here at Resource Media, where we continue to focus on  equity and inclusion both internally and in our work, as we change with the times, endeavor to help break the green ceiling and foster broader cultural change that will ultimately lead to more durable wins. It’s a journey, for sure, and we definitely don’t have all the answers, but we’re working at it.

We can’t get where we’re going without seeing where we’ve been. That goes for organizations like Resource Media as much as it does for governments and entire countries. And thanks to SPI, there’s a benchmark, specific data points to be improved, and, maybe most importantly, a vision for a creating social change and a more equitable world.

Collin Dunn