Social Progress Reconsidered: What Really Is Success?

Economic growth has improved the lives of millions worldwide, yet it has become increasingly clear that measures of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are not the sole indicators of a society’s growth and well-being. In considering social progress, it is important to account for citizens’ access to basic necessities, to knowledge, and to opportunities for growth. On Friday, November 13, a renowned panel of experts reflected on the changing development landscape, focusing on the Social Progress Index (SPI), a groundbreaking metric of social development that is revolutionizing policy and planning at all levels of government by measuring progress beyond GDP.

Peter Schechter, Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, kicked off the event by highlighting the growing movement to redefine the development paradigm, pinpointing the increased momentum of social progress and environmental outcomes as two illustrative indicators of a country’s overall well-being.

Julie Katzman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Inter-American Development Bank, provided keynote remarks. Katzman, who has focused on the multi-sectoral dimensions of development challenges, emphasized that progress must be measured in a much broader way. She noted the central mission of the Inter-American Development Bank is improving lives, which includes increasing the quality of access to basic services, increasing the sustainability of cities and countries, and increasing the level of social inclusion in a society.

“While I think we’ll see the index continue to improve over time, and we’ll be able to draw more conclusions, it is a really important tool for us to begin to apply across the board. I hope that there will be more sub-nationals, more Detroits, more Californias, more cities like the ten in Colombia who will be adopting the index, or the neighborhoods in Bogotá, so that policy-makers can use this to focus public policy, so societies can improve, so that opportunities can increase, and so that we can change lives, which is really what we’re all about,” she affirmed.

Moderated by Deputy Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center Jason Marczak, the panel reflected on the ideas behind social progress within the framework of the Social Progress Index.

Matthew Bishop, Senior Editor at The Economist and Co-Founder of the Social Progress Index, explained the origins of the three-pillar approach to the index and how it can help countries define areas for improvement. By creating peer groups, he noted countries can use the index to learn from one another’s successes.

“If you simply rely on the forecast for GPD growth, over the next fifteen years, simply on existing policies, we barely move the needle globally on social progress, so we don’t get anywhere near achieving the Global Development Goals,” Bishop said.

José Molinas, Minister of the Republic of Paraguay, addressed the country’s role as a leading adopter of the index in Latin America. He emphasized that as a young democracy, Paraguay has strived to put social progress at the center of the national agenda. According to Molinas, the Social Progress Index contributed to a consensus and to national objectives for 2030, as well as to the creation of a counsel that promotes the development agenda in Paraguay. The index has also provided a concrete way of monitoring progress at the input level, the output level, and the outcomes level.
“We need to create trust, and a way to create trust is to have a common vision of the society, and the Social Progress Index can contribute to that. We need to create trust also by working together from different sectors, the private sector, the government, academia, and civil society. Having a common set of goals and a way to monitor facilitates this working together and facilitates the co-production from the public sector, the private sector, and civil society,” he said. “Having that framework facilitates that process,” he said.

Marcela Escobari, Executive Director of the Harvard Center for International Development, discussed two key contributions of the index. She affirmed the index not only opens the door for a conversation about the nuances of social progress, it also allows countries to benchmark in the most desegregated way, by looking at where they fall on the Social Progress Index. She also emphasized that the Social Progress Index and GDP are in many ways complementary.

“If what we really want to create is a better society that meetings human needs, that provides opportunities, that is sustainable, then we really have to measure those things. GDP was meant to be a measure of output, not welfare, but because it was widely used and remotely consistently applied, it became a useful measure,” she said.
In addressing other measures to include, she observed “the way we are thinking about inclusive growth is moving to this definition of trying to include people into networks of opportunity. Trying to measure that inclusion with the kind of data we are talking about will become a very interesting frontier.”

Providing the viewpoint from the private sector, Raul Gatica, Senior Director of Government Affairs and Policy for Latin America at Abbott Laboratories, noted businesses take into account the complex matrix of the index to define areas for improvement. He emphasized that the private sector can leverage the opportunities put forth by SPI through public-private partnerships, by contributing to the inclusion of society, and by investing in the improvement of technologies.

“In our experience working in Latin America, we try to leverage those opportunities. We believe there are critical areas where the public sector can contribute…but the private sector can bring the experience, the investment to develop those areas, to contribute to improve the quality of life of the people,” he said.

The panel concluded by discussing how the global Social Progress Index can be implemented on the city level and how the index will be used going forward.
“The public knows that GDP doesn’t really get you very far. It gets you some of the way, but it doesn’t get you the answer to things they are feeling most motivated about,” Matthew Bishop stated. “We are very interested in how quickly we can now engage the academic community more broadly and actually do those rigorous comparisons of different places that have different outcomes for different amounts of GDP. Every year that goes by the conversation can get a lot richer and we can really start to learn what differences are really telling us something important and what is the noise.”