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Sunday Pouch

Social Progress Report 2014: Are we doing better?

Ashfaqur Rahman

So where is the US intellectual, Henry Kissinger? His fond dream of seeing Bangladesh as an 'international basket case' has indeed floundered. So much about such intellectualism. In the early seventies, the way to measure the progress of a nation was to look at its Gross National Product (GNP) per capita. That was the only reliable criterion. Hence Kissinger thought Bangladesh deserved such a characterisation. Soon however, Mahbubul Huq, a Pakistani economist, introduced what he called the Human Development Index (HDI). Here he included a broader definition of wellbeing. He included a composite measure of three dimensions of human development. They were: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and gross enrolment in education), and having a decent standard of living (measured by purchasing power parity). He, therefore, provided a broad prism for looking at human progress and the intricate relationship between income and wellbeing.
Then came the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Eight MDGs, which range from halving extreme poverty rates to halting the spread of HIV/Aids and providing primary education, all by 2015, was a blueprint agreed by world leaders and spearheaded by the United Nations. The aim was to meet the needs of the world's poorest and to build a better world. Work is now in progress to find out what more can be done after 2015.
An original idea for designing a social progress index was conceived in 2009 when experts, academics and social leaders met at the World Economic Forum (Global Agenda Council on Philanthropy and Social Investing). This proposed index was a challenge to increase the impact that social entrepreneurs, business leaders and policy makers could have in the world. Inspired by the Global Competitive Index to spur competition between nations to improve the environment for social innovation, this new index was born. In 2013, the Social Progress Imperative launched its first project called the Social Progress Index (SPI) at the University of Oxford.
The methodology used was developed under the leadership of a Social Progress Advisory Board chair, Professor Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, with guidance from scholars drawn from the Rockefeller Foundation, M.I.T. and others. It may be noted that the conceptual underpinnings of this Index drew from the work done by Joseph Stiglitz (previously of the World Bank), Amartya Sen (Nobel Laureate in Economics) and Jean Paul Fitoussi of the French Commission on Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. The 2013 report included several countries but it was at an initial stage.
Last week, a more comprehensive index based on observations of social and environmental factors directly rather than only economic ones has been tabulated and measured. The factors include personal safety, ecosystem sustainability, health and wellness, shelter, sanitation, equity, inclusion, personal freedom, choice, etc. They were lumped under three different dimensions -- Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Well Being and Opportunity. Thus, the whole idea behind introducing SPI was to loudly state that economic progress is a necessary step, but it is not sufficient for personal welfare. SPI ranks 132 countries this year on 54 indicators.
A study of the SPI shows that in the country rankings 'some countries pull above their weight when it converts dollars of output into social progress.' Thus, New Zealand a small island country in the Pacific, tops the SPI. So does Costa Rica, another speck of a country as well as Uruguay. The USA is a nation where GDP dollars spent do not seem to be matched by social progress. This is clear when expenditures in health and the costs incurred do not translate into the top health wellbeing for its population. Both India and China, the two most populous nations are coming up in economic clout, but their dollars spent are not bettering the lives of their citizens. Another exciting revelation from the 2014 SPI is that 'societies that lacks things as social inclusiveness and political freedom lag far behind their potential (Turkey and Russia). This means that citizens of these countries do not enjoy wellbeing from the GDP that is already theirs.'
How does Bangladesh fare in the SPI that came out last week? Out of the 132 countries Bangladesh ranks 99. We are above India (102) and Pakistan (124) in overall position. But below us is Sri Lanka (85) in South Asia. Although our per capita GDP is less, our basic human needs is 57.28 and our Foundations of Well Being is 59.4. Only our Opportunity dimension scores 39.44. If it is any consolation to us, China stands in 90th position compared to our 99th position, and Russia is in 80th position. The overall best performing country in the SPI is New Zealand, followed by Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. But they are tiny countries with relatively small populations. Japan, the 3rd largest economy in the world, is in 14th position while the USA occupies the 16th position in the world.
What can Bangladesh learn from examining the SPI? Two major areas need further attention of our policy planners to accelerate growth. They are Basic Human Needs (nutrition, basic medical care, water and sanitation, personal safety and shelter) and Opportunity (personal rights, personal freedom, choice, tolerance, inclusion and access to advanced education). We emphasise on these two major dimensions so that we all understand that it is in these two areas that we need to put our budgetary dollars for fruitful spending. Our economic pundits as well as our political leaders must stop frittering away energy on irrelevant issues.
Wise men like Professor Yunus, Sir Abed and other ordinary men and women of great talent have relentlessly pursued some of these goals as mentioned in the SPI for Bangladesh. We have been able to quickly come so far because of their hard work and foresight. We have indeed been able to debunk the sheer nonsense that certain so-called intellectuals in their spur of exuberance had uttered and had created visible paralysis in vision and foresight in a great nation like Bangladesh.
Is Henry Kissinger able to read this Social Progress Index 2014 report?

The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current affairs.
E-mail: ashfaque303@gmail.com

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, April 27, 2014

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