Canada is one of the most socially advanced countries in the world, especially when it comes to opportunity for its citizens, though it has room for improvement in areas such as environmental sustainability and obesity rates.
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Canada sits in 6th place of 133 countries – the highest of any G7 nation – in an annual "social progress index" to be released Thursday.
The index, whose methodology was developed by Harvard economics professor Michael Porter, is meant to complement the traditional measure of gross domestic product in assessing progress. It tracks 52 indicators – from crime levels to literacy rates and gender equality – that reflect whether a country is providing essential needs to its citizens and opportunities for people to improve their lot in society.
"GDP isn't a bad thing. It just isn't the whole story," said Michael Green, executive director of the index, in an interview from London. This index can be used alongside GDP to show whether economic growth is "really leading to improvement in people's lives, to what people are calling inclusive growth and shared prosperity."
"There's a lot of interest now, post-Arab Spring, post financial crisis, as we're recognizing the environmental limits of development, as we worry about inequality, whether growth alone has been a good strategy. So social progress is a tool to help us understand whether our growth is good for us and also which types of growth are good for us."
Canada shines when it comes to opportunity for its people, landing in first place in the world, with high marks for political rights, freedom of assembly and tolerance for immigrants and religious minorities. It fares well in women's average years of school, the number of good universities, high-school enrolment and the low rates of violent crime.
Canada "has a particular strength in opportunity," Mr. Green said, which encompasses factors such as personal rights, inclusion and access to advanced education. This is crucial because opportunity plays a key role in increasing life satisfaction and reflects "what matters in terms of being a good society."
It performs poorly, however, in several other measures such as access to information, particularly in cellphone subscriptions, where it sits in 101st place, which may be due to relatively higher costs and more inflexible plans. It also lags in obesity and suicide rates, along with in habitat protection and water use.
"If you were to ask what is the biggest social-progress challenge Canada faces, it is ecosystem sustainability, in absolute terms," said Mr. Green, adding that this is the area in which other rich countries are underperforming the most.
Norway sits atop the list as the world's most socially advanced nation. Rounding out the top five are Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland and New Zealand. The United States is a distant 16th place while the lowest-ranked country in the world is Central African Republic. Last year, Canada was ranked No. 7.
Economic strength doesn't always move in lockstep with the overall health of society. The analysis finds some countries – such as Costa Rica, New Zealand and Rwanda – punch above their weight in social progress relative to their GDP per capita. Others, such as Saudi Arabia, underperform relative to their GDP. And two key areas – health and environmental sustainability – don't tend to increase as countries get richer, and thus require concerted efforts to improve, he said.
More cities and countries are using the index to help assess progress, in addition to GDP. Paraguay has adopted the social-progress index to help guide it in making an inclusive-growth long-term development plan, while a number of Colombian and Brazilian cities, including Rio de Janeiro, are using it to track development. The state of Michigan is using it and the European Commission is now adopting it, too, though so far no Canadian city, province or government has.
This isn't the only social indicator – other rankings look at the well-being of nations or happiness levels. And these measures have faced criticism over subjectivity.
Any assessment of "progress" will have a set of values attached to it, said Mr. Green. "People have been arguing over what makes a good society since Aristotle and probably before. And they'll probably argue about it for the next two and a half thousand years."
Its definition is based on academic literature, debate and years of testing. It uses data from the World Health Organization, World Bank, Pew Research Centre and World Economic Forum and weights the indicators to make sure no single measure dominates.
Dr. Porter said the results show that GDP is "far from being the sole determinant of social progress." And economic growth "that is inclusive and sustainable is important for business and vital for building a prosperous society," said Steve Almond, chairman of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd., in a release.
The social progress index, whose methodology was developed by Harvard economics professor Michael Porter, is meant to complement the traditional measure of gross domestic product in assessing progress. It tracks 52 indicators – from crime levels to literacy rates and gender equality - that reflect whether a country is providing essential needs to its citizens and opportunities for people to improve their lot in society.