Apr 18th 2013, 10:54 by E.C. OXFORD, ENGLAND
ANNIVERSARIES are a good occasion to try something new. So when the Skoll World Forum, a big shindig for social entrepreneurs, celebrated its tenth anniversary in Oxford last week, it launched the Social Progress Index (SPI)—a new way to measure social progress that goes beyond the dominant metric of development, gross domestic product.
“GDP is simply too one-dimensional to provide a complete measure of a nation’s progress,” says Michael Green, who heads the Social Progress Imperative, a non-profit created to promote the new index. He mentions Nigeria and Ghana as examples. Nigeria has a higher GDP but has had slower social progress. Ghana, however, has a smaller GDP but ranks higher on the SPI. Moreover, says Mr Green, metrics improve accountability and create healthy competition. “They provoke action, the desire to be on top,” he argues.
Sally Osberg, president and chief executive of the Skoll Foundation, the forum’s organiser, says that the tool will help entrepreneurs, policy makers and the private sector make better decisions to help the world’s poor. Paraguay will be the first country to adopt the SPI by incorporating it into its national development framework. Costa Rica may follow suit. But the index is not only pertinent for poorer countries, says Mr Green. According to his think-tank’s findings, social progress decelerates in rich nations as growth continues. Problems—“the diseases of prosperity”—include obesity, environmental pollution and waste.
Several indexes already try to go beyond GDP, such as the Human Development Index and the Happiness Index. But none, says Mr Green, specifically tracks social and environmental outcomes. These include access to schools, healthcare, a clean environment, sanitation and nutrition. The idea came out of a working group of the World Economic Forum, a think-tank and conference organiser. Its members wanted to interpret progress differently and were influenced by the writings of Amartya Sen, Douglass North, and Joseph Stiglitz, three noted economists.
Sweden, UK, and Switzerland top the list (see chart), which currently includes only 50 countries. The high ranking of the UK may come as a surprise, but the country did well on two of the SPI’s three main criteria, “basic needs” and “opportunity”. It did worse on the third, “foundations of well-being”, which includes things such primary education, health services and access to technology and internet. Also lagging on these measures is America, which came in 6th.
Yet not everybody is impressed by the new index. “You can prove all sorts of things by selecting your sample. Denmark, if included, would certainly have outranked the UK,” says John Elkington, chief executive of Volans, a consultancy, who is an expert in developing such indices. “This is very much work in progress and I suspect that some of the authors will be somewhat embarrassed when they look back on these first-round results.”
(Matthew Bishop, The Economist’s US business editor, is a member of Social Progress Imperative’s advisory board.)