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Social Progress Index

Canada was lauded for its tolerance, but lags on environment

Canada ranks second in the world when it comes to turning economic prosperity into social progress, says a global ranking released Tuesday.

The 2016 Social Progress Index grades countries on how well they perform in the categories of "basic human needs," "foundations of well-being" and "opportunity." Within these categories, countries are also measured against 53 indicators, spanning nutrition, shelter, personal safety, tolerance and higher education. To arrive at a ranking, researchers scour a broad range of data, looking at how fairly laws are enforced, whether residents feel rent is too high and the strength of community safety nets.

"Measuring people's real lived experience in that way is actually very powerful," said Michael Green, executive director of The Social Progress Imperative, which compiles the index annually.

About the rankings:

In 2010, researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first conceived of a global ranking system that would complement hard economic indicators often used to gauge a country's success, like the gross domestic product. In 2013, the first SPI was tested using just 50 countries and expanded to 133 countries the following year.

The data is pulled from many well-known public databases, including the World Health Organization, the Pew Research Center, Gallup World Poll and the United Nations Development Programme. Twenty-seven countries with insufficient data were excluded from the index, including wealthy nations like Singapore, Qatar and Bahrain.

"You can actually get broader perspective on how your country or society is doing to inform your policy choices, where you spend money, what you prioritize," said Mr. Green of the SPI's appeal to policy makers. Already, the European Union is using the index to inform regional policy.


Canada scored best in:

  • Basic human needs
  • Access to advanced education
  • Tolerance for minority communities

Canada scored worst in:

  • Environment quality
  • Mobile phone ownership
  • Obesity Rates

Overall rankings:

This year, Finland came first among 133 countries. For a second year in a row, the Central African Republic, torn apart by civil war, came last. Overall, Canada topped or tied 14 separate indicators. Canada is up from its previous sixth place ranking, but researchers caution comparing the 2016 index to last year's result, given the back-revision of data and changes in methodology.

"Canada is in the very high social progress category. That top core group of nations is tightly clustered, so we see some rank changes year to year," said Mr. Green.

Here's a breakdown of how Canada compares to countries with similar GDP per capita:

Basic human needs:

Canada received high marks for meeting basic human needs – with excellent access to food, quality electricity and high childhood education rates. It also scored well on political rights. Residents enjoyed protections to freedom of speech, the right to assembly and private property. The data also showed low violent crime rates and little worry for political terror.

Access to advanced education:

Researchers reserved the most praise for Canada's access to higher education. In the category, Canada ranks first overall with particular emphasis on women's average years in school (15.65) and years in postsecondary education (1.64). The study also found that almost half of postsecondary students attend a top university.

Tolerance and inclusion:

However, the overall scores for countries were weak when it came to tolerance and diversity, with struggles to achieve tolerance and inclusion across the income range – with the exception of Canada.

"It's striking how well Canada does on tolerance and inclusion. For a big and diverse country, to be doing so well, that's actually quite a significant achievement," said Mr. Green.

"Perhaps there's a lot Canada could be teaching the rest of the world about how to build a successful multicultural society."

Environmental quality:

Canada continued to disappoint when it comes to the environment. Researchers docked marks for a lack of substantive biodiversity and habitat protection, pushing Canada to 90th place, behind Indonesia and Ethiopia. High greenhouse-gas emissions, the scourge of most nations, weren't up to standard, resulting in a 77th place ranking.

The study notes that a higher GDP often correlates with better environmental protection but Canada still comes second to last amongst other G7 nations, beating only the United States.

"Canada, relative to other countries of similar wealth, is underperforming," said Mr. Green. In last year's rankings, Canada also scored poorly in the environmental category.

Other areas of concern have been well-reported in the media over the last two years. Inadequate access to water for rural communities made headlines during last year's election, when many aboriginal reserves complained about a lack of quality drinking water available. A high proportion of traffic deaths also concerned researchers.

Mobile telephone subscriptions:

Canada's worst ranking came from poor mobile telephone subscription numbers. Only 81 per cent of Canadians own a mobile telephone, the data showed, pushing the country to 102nd, behind Iraq, Republic of Congo and Venezuela. This tepid performance in mobile phone ownership was also flagged last year as an area of concern.

In spite of Canada's weaknesses, they're minimal compared to the United States. One of the world's wealthiest nations, it tumbled to 19th in the rankings. When matched up head to head, the researchers found Canada beats the United States on 10 of the 12 components.

"Another disappointing result for Americans who are getting a pretty raw deal when it comes to translating the country's wealth into social progress," said Mr. Green.

Globally, the world as a whole showed strength when it came to providing basic nutrition and medical care, two of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.


Canada's high obesity rates, almost one quarter of the population, also troubled researchers. While a rising GDP often sheds issues like malnutrition or access to shelter, there is little indication of obesity rates dropping the wealthier a country becomes, says Mr. Green.