Impact Management | June 22, 2017

The surprising list of countries that are proving the pessimists wrong

The team at


Economic growth is an outcome of social progress and not the other way around. That simple and powerful premise is at the core of the Social Progress Index, a five-year-old effort to monitor how countries around the world measure up in meeting basic human needs, ensuring the foundations of well-being and promoting personal freedom, tolerance and inclusion.

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The topline results of the latest edition of the index, released today, show a modest improvement in the world’s average score, which reached 64.85 on a scale of 100, up 2.6% from 63.19 in 2014. But the overall figure obscures a split in the country results, with some countries moving ahead and others stagnating or even going backwards. The United States’ score for tolerance and inclusion, for example, has dropped significantly and puts it on par with Hungary and Poland.

“The world in general is progressing, but not as fast as we want, or need,” says Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, which produces the annual index.

If social progress is a leading indicator, the countries to watch are the “positive deviants” that are outperforming on social progress, especially in relation to their economic growth or GDP per capita. The biggest such outperformer continues to be Costa Rica, the top-scoring country outside Europe or North America. Other outperformers relative to GDP include Nepal, Senegal, Chile, New Zealand and Portugal. Other countries making progress are Nigeria and Myanmar, along with Cote d’Ivoire, Kyrgystan, Togo, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

“There’s astonishing pessimism and people think progress doesn’t happen. But it does,” Green told ImpactAlpha. “As Galileo said, ‘And yet it moves.’”

The experience of the positive deviants should be instructive for countries where social progress has stalled, or even retreated. In a handful of worst-performing countries, including many of those in the bottom 10% by income, progress has stalled in areas such as nutrition, medical care, access to basic knowledge.

But another factor is a reversal in indicators of “opportunity” in countries such as Russia and Turkey. Over time, countries with rising scores on personal freedom, tolerance and inclusion have tended to outperform. Deloitte, a partner of the social progress imperative, crunched numbers to show that tolerance and inclusion is important to attracting foreign-direct investors, who in general want their workers to be happy. Countries with low scores, even if they are relatively successful in meeting basic needs, may be due for disruption — think Arab Spring.

The warning signs are not limited to so-called developing countries. The U.S. and France are both underperforming on social progress relative to their GDP, while the U.K. is stalled. “The U.S. underperformance pattern is very clear and is a function of decades of underinvestment,” Green said.

Overall, the world is moving forward too slowly to meet, say, the Sustainable Development Goals. Economic growth, which helped us meet many (though not all) of the earlier Millennium Development Goals, won’t be enough to achieve the 2030 goals. “We’ve used up those quick wins from growth,” Green says.

Today’s harder problems are concentrated in countries with poor governance or even failed states. In other countries, economic growth can even make some problems worse, including some health and environmental indicators.

“The biggest mistake is to think that economic growth will get us to the Sustainable Development Goals,” Green says. “The SDGs require us doing things differently.”