Widening the debate about what social progress should look like

Becoming the best small country to do business in is not enough. We must strive to be the best small country to live in too writes Brendan Jennings.

We work in an economy but we live in a society.   It was easy to forget that obvious point over the last number of years as economic numbers dominated public discourse.  But with repair work on the economy well underway, there is evidence that our society needs some repair work too.  After all, they are inherently linked – a sustainable and prosperous society needs thriving businesses, and for business to thrive, it needs to operate in a robust society. 

New research points to broader areas of public policy that need attention to ensure the country is a great one to live in. Indeed, while Ireland has a GDP per capita rank of 5, it is ranked 15th out of 132 on the Social Progress Index (SPI).  This new index, designed by a non-profit the Social Progress Imperative, along with leaders in academia and private business, measures things that really matter to the public under three broad headings – basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing and opportunity. 

It is an innovative measurement tool which serves to widen the debate about what progress should look like. It recognises that a country’s success is not just measured in GDP figures.  The Index measures social progress beyond GDP to provide a more holistic understanding of countries’ overall performance and well-being.

Building a robust society is not a job for government alone. For those of us in business, the index can serve as a guide to help us determine where we can leverage our skills and expertise and direct investment. The complexity of big societal challenges demands collaboration. This index can help in bringing all relevant parties together to address the issues identified and build a stronger, and more robust, society.

The results are interesting. Ireland scores highly in the Index’s Opportunity category. This covers areas such as tolerance, inclusion and personal rights.  We also have great strength in terms of access to basic knowledge and access to third level education.  Our universities remain highly focused on improving their position in global rankings, and we are a reasonably respectable 12th of 132 countries in terms of the number of universities which are currently ranked.   We rank first in terms of the percentage of children enrolling in secondary school.  With regards to the adult literacy rate, Ireland achieves a score of 99 out of 100, ranking us 21st overall. This reflects both the positive inroads already made but also highlights that further work can be done, particularly to increase the understanding of written information. 

So where are the areas that require attention?  They are in the areas of Foundations of Wellbeing and Basic Human Needs.  In relation to health for example Ireland ranks 20th in terms of life expectancy and a poor 102nd in our obesity rate, an area of increasing concern and media attention in relation to our children.

With regards to ecosystem sustainability we are worse still, ranked 111th.  The most glaring gap between our wealth and social progress measure is with regards to our level of protection of biodiversity and habitat. We rank a poor 117 in this area which focuses on protection of terrestrial and marine areas in addition to endangered species. On the positive side in the area of environment, we ranked second overall with regard to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Based on the percentage of the population who have used an internet device within 12 months, Ireland received the lowest rank in its group of 15 comparator countries in this field. Our internet usage has grown steadily from 17.85% in 2000 to 79% in 2012. However we rank just 22nd among the 132 countries measured, well below what our GDP per capita should indicate. A particular challenge for Ireland is access to Next Generation Broadband which is generally only available in the Dublin area. Recent announcements on the rollout of 4G and broadband nationwide are extremely welcome in this regard.

In the area of water and sanitation, the index shows a comparative weakness in sanitation facilities compared to other countries and the difference between rural and urban access to an improved water source. In these categories, 13 of the 15 countries closest to us in GDP per capita scored higher than us. The opportunity now with the establishment of Irish Water is surely to address some of these issues.

The recent period of austerity has seen a requirement for substantial cuts in public spending as the Government sought to bring the national finances under control.  As the country embarks on its post-Troika journey, it is an opportune time to take stock and identify the measures of success from all perspectives, not just economic, that are important to us. A more rounded and thorough debate can then commence on how we can align the country’s resources to achieving these objectives.

The Taoiseach is regularly quoted as having set an ambitious goal of making Ireland the best small country in which to do business. I was recently reminded of his full statement: “Ireland can become the best small country in the world in which to do business, the best country in which to raise a family and the best country in which to grow old with dignity and respect.”

We have grown comfortable measuring our performance in economic terms.  Now is the time for us all to come together and agree on our social progress objectives, and measure performance against these as well.  

Brendan Jennings is Managing Partner of Deloitte, which collaborate with the Social Progress Imperative, producers of the index. The report for 2014 has just been published and is available at

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To truly advance social progress, we must learn to measure it, comprehensively and rigorously. The Social Progress Index offers a rich framework for measuring the multiple dimensions of social progress, benchmarking success, and catalyzing greater human wellbeing. The 2014 version of the Social Progress Index has improved upon the 2013 ‘beta’ version through generous feedback from many observers. We continue to welcome your use and testing of our data, and feedback to help us continue to improve. 

Continue reading our Social Progress Index 2014: Measuring national progress here.

Link to index
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