Charting India’s Social Progress by Scott Stern

Discussions of development often focus exclusively on traditional economic measures of success like the level and growth of GDP and employment.  These measures are invaluable for economists and policymakers alike as they provide a useful guide to the level and growth of economic activity, and engagement by individuals with paid employment.  But, GDP was never intended to measure overall quality of life; as such, it should be no revelation that GDP does not adequately reflect quality of life.    Yet too often economic measures have become the primary and exclusive basis for action and investment, and the sole metric for success; overreliance on these measures can lead to flawed policy choices that do not respond to people’s actual needs.

Inclusive development will only be possible when economic measures are no longer used as the sole proxies for the essential elements of a good society like clean water, shelter, health, literacy, and inclusion.   By developing a measure of social progress that is distinct from traditional measures of economic activity, it is possible to chart a new path that offers equal and shared attention to the role of policy and action on both economic prosperity and social progress.

The Social Progress Index supplements measures of economic success by directly measuring social and environmental outcomes. The Index is a tool that provides actionable data about the strength and weaknesses of each community, improving the capacity of governments and businesses to respond to people’s needs and ensure economic growth is accompanied by societal improvement.

The Social Progress Index also provides disparate stakeholders with a common language to share their perspectives and expertise. By bringing together a variety of perspectives around a holistic assessment of societal performance, it moves the conversation beyond traditional metrics and towards a comprehensive portrait of development.   While there is indeed a strong positive relationship between the level of economic development and the realized level of social progress, an economically successful society is not necessarily one that provides for its people’s basic needs and gives them the foundation or opportunities to flourish and prosper.   The Social Progress Index can provide insight into the relationship between economic performance and social progress, and help diagnosis whether economic dynamism is also helping to address social challenges, or whether such progress may mask more troubling element of social performance.

Measurement makes it possible to develop a consensus on what the most pressing issues are and have a constructive conversation across traditional boundaries. It allows people to move past their preconceptions and work collaboratively towards solutions.

When done carefully and with thought and rigor, measurement allows us to name things for what they actually are, and through that unite disparate stakeholders and spark collective action. It concretizes debates, grounding them in an empirical foundation that provides a solid basis to move from discussing challenges to actually addressing them.

By bringing this powerful tool to India with the Social Progress Index, States of India, Amit Kapoor and the team at the Institute for Competitiveness, India have taken a critical step towards ensuring that one of the world’s fastest-growing economies matches its economic development with social progress.

The Index highlights those states that are maximizing their resources and delivering the highest possible quality of life to their people, providing lessons that can be gleaned by leaders elsewhere. But there are still areas for improvement in every state. Federal and state governments now have an empirical basis for action that highlights the areas that demand investment and policies that require reassessment, while businesses can now accurately prioritize how to undertake shared value initiatives that both can help create a basis for societal well-being and corporate sustainability.

This Index is enabling a constructive social progress agenda that moves beyond a single agency, a single level of government, or a single entity and allows different stakeholders to coordinate and prioritize their activities in order to create real change around the issues that are most vital and most important for the country.

The potential impact of this ambitious and insightful initiative is difficult to overstate. India is home to one-sixth of the world’s people.  Identifying and synthesizing the key challenges to the achievement of social progress, on a granular basis and with empirical care, offers the prospect of strengthening fragile communities and transforming the quality of lives for millions.  Going forward, the Index can guide more responsive policies and new multi-sectoral collaborations. As the Institute for Competitiveness, India activates the next phase of this effort — measuring social progress on the district and city levels — the utility, actionability, and transformational potential of this tool will only increase.

While economic growth is incredibly important, social progress must stand by as an equal partner in the quest for inclusive development.  By recognizing that measuring economic and social development separately and contrasting them provides new and sharp insights into each, India is charting a path that regions and countries, at every level of development, can and should follow.

Scott Stern,

Professor MIT

Advisory Board Member, Social Progress Imperative

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