Social Progress Index
The Philippines registered a gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of 5.3 percent in the third quarter that ended on Sept. 30. It dropped from 6.4 percent in the second quarter; nevertheless, it is second only to China’s 7.3 percent in the region. While the growth rate is commendable (despite the drop), for which the government rightfully deserves credit, the criticism continues that economic growth is uneven and the marginalized sector has not benefited from it, with the gap between rich and poor even getting worse. (This is consistent with the Philippines’ 45.8 Gini score—or a measure of the inequality of the distribution of wealth: the higher the score, the higher the inequality—which makes it the 35th country with the most uneven distribution of wealth in the world.)
It is argued, however, that the benefits from GDP growth will eventually trickle down to the poor, and that pursuing it still makes good sense for the country. But perhaps this growth should be pursued together with other metrics that truly measure national progress, which, if defined in terms of the population, can be referred to as social progress. But to advance social progress, it must first be measured so that any improvement can be adequately monitored.
The Social Progress Index (SPI), which was developed by the Social Progress Imperative, provides a robust framework for measuring the essential dimensions of social progress. It comprises three general measures categorized into: basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing, and opportunity.
Each of these three have four subcategories: basic human nutrition and basic medical care, water and sanitation, shelter, and personal safety for basic human needs; access to basic knowledge, access to information and communication, health and wellness, and ecosystem sustainability for foundations of wellbeing; personal rights, personal freedom and choice, tolerance and inclusion; and access to advanced education for opportunity.
Each of these subcategories have individual attributes totaling 54 that are used to measure a country’s specific rating index. For example, nutrition and basic medical care are measured in terms of the prevalence of undernourishment, depth of food deficit, maternal mortality rate, stillbirth rate, and death from infectious diseases.
The SPI is clearly a better measure of a country’s wellbeing with respect to its population. Thus, it makes a lot of sense to use the SPI to assess how governments perform, both at the local and national levels, preferably annually. Voters can use the SPI to assess the performance of elected officials and thus enable them to better decide if the officials deserve to be reelected or not. The National Statistics Office is perhaps the ideal and appropriate government agency to collect these individual indexes. To some extent, these are better and more objective measures than the surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations or Pulse Asia, which rely mainly on perceptions.
But should the Philippines pursue SPI targets solely and ignore per capita GDP altogether? The answer is no, considering that there is a high correlation between a country’s per capita GDP with its SPI. This is intuitively clear because scoring high in many of the attributes—say, better universal healthcare, access to electricity and piped water, and improved sanitation facilities—would typically require government investments in infrastructure and services using funds taken mainly from taxes, which in turn are generally a function of the country’s GDP.
It is worth noting that in the SPI 2014 provided by the Social Progress Imperative, New Zealand ranked first, Japan 14th, the United States 16th, the Republic of Korea 28th, Malaysia 45th, the Philippines 56th, China 90th, and Chad the lowest at 132nd. There are many countries that scored well in SPI even with per capita GDP much lower than in other countries. This suggests that a high SPI can be achieved even with, say, average or low per capita GDP. In general, however, the countries with high per capita GDPs scored well in SPI.
There remain certain dimensions that are currently not included in the SPI, and that are very relevant to the Philippines but could result in our being ranked even much lower. These are the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of the population, efficiency of the judicial system, and quality of the transportation infrastructure. In one way or another, these attributes affect directly or indirectly the three essential elements of the SPI.
The measures for these attributes should be identified, measured and monitored (e.g., to assess the efficiency of the judicial system, the number of years it takes to resolve cases, and the backlog of cases, including reversals of decisions, may be used), with target goals set each year. Ideally, the country’s five-year economic plan should include target indexes in the components of the SPI.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of nonstock and nonprofit organizations that work for the welfare of our disadvantaged fellow citizens. To have better focus and direction as to their activities and efforts, specific attributes of the SPI can be used to measure and monitor these organizations’ performance each year or over a period of time, and reported to their donors and constituents.
David L. Balangue (davidlbalangue@yahoo. com.ph) is the chair of the Coalition Against Corruption and the Philippine Council for Population and Development and the founder of the email@example.com.
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