Fear and violence are escalating in America, making it all too clear that being a wealthy nation doesn't necessarily translate into social peace and progress.
An organization called the Social Progress Imperative has set out to define the non-economic components of progress, assess how countries are doing, and suggest plans for improvement.
The group, chaired by Harvard's Michael Porter, has just released the 2016 Social Progress Index, which measures countries' ability to satisfy basic human needs and provide opportunity and the foundations for wellbeing. The Index is designed to fill a gap in our understanding of what constitutes success in a society, noting that economic growth alone paints an incomplete picture.
The Index's authors define social progress as "the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential."
The Index is structured around 12 components and 53 distinct indicators, showing results that policy makers can address very specifically. The 12 components are:
• nutrition and basic medical care
• water and sanitation
• personal safety
• access to basic knowledge
• access to information and communications
• health and wellness
• environmental quality
• personal rights
• personal freedom and choice
• tolerance and inclusion, and
• access to advanced education.
This year's Index ranked the United States 19th, trailing Canada, Australia, Japan, and several European countries, especially those in the Nordic region. When the US was compared to nations with similar economic health, it underperformed them badly in social progress.
The Social Progress Imperative has only been around since 2013, but some countries and cities are already using its tools and networks to address their problems with laser-like focus. The Social Progress Network for Paraguay, for example, has begun initiatives including one that monitors the effectiveness of public spending.
Hopefully, US state and local governments can do that as well, given that federal lawmakers have a hard time agreeing on even the need for such social progress.
Beyond specific policies to address the 12 components of the Index, I see four ways we can help make communities in the US more sustainable:
1. We can invest in our communities and in companies we feel try to solve societal problems. Put your retirement savings into stocks that have been vetted as socially and/or environmentally responsible. Buy local food and other locally sourced products. It is now possible in some cases to invest directly in local businesses through crowdfunding; look for social entrepreneurs you can support.
2. We can value people's unique personalities and contributions, and make education a priority in our communities. We can have conversations about diversity, inclusion, opportunity and equality. Think about the different implications of each of those terms. A society is most productive when all its talent is unleashed by a combination of two factors: equal opportunity (for example through free quality higher education) and social mobility. America used to represent both (at least for white people); now it has little of either. We all lose out when we fail to unleash all our talent.
3. As entrepreneurs, we can lead with a stakeholder approach rather than a shareholder approach. A stakeholder approach recognizes that creating value for all stakeholders, including employees, customers, the community, and the environment, creates economic value that is sustainable over time.
4. As citizens, we can start demanding more practical solutions. For example, our local governments raise needed funding by pressuring police to issue more traffic tickets. The poorest, who can't afford to pay multiple tickets with interest, end up in prison because they don't pay, costing the government far more. People who can't afford traffic tickets should be required to do community service instead of having to pay fines, and we need more programs to help people deal with debt. More generally, citizens need to be more involved in the choices our legislators make on our behalf. Are they creating a better society? Or fueling fear and divisiveness?
"The relationship between economic development and social progress is not linear," reads a press release from the Social Progress Imperative. Sadly, it points out that "the US is the only major Western democracy among the world's most significant under-performers (relative to its GDP)."
We have a "wicked problem," a problem that defies resolution. As a society, we don't agree on how to define the problem, we don't agree on who is responsible, and we don't agree on a set of values from which to seek answers.
The Social Progress Index is a tool that can help us focus on solutions; let's use it. And the time to create sustainable communities is now.