It’s a result that might surprise many in New Zealand. Good ol’ Godzone is actually getting something right. Despite being a relatively poor member of the moderately rich country club, on a global scale we’re best overall at achieving three things: meeting the basic needs of our population, providing the ‘foundations for wellbeing’ ( things that contribute to people being mentally and physically well and happy) and offering meaningful opportunities and freedom. Whew, that is something to celebrate.
New Zealand’s top ranking is in a new world survey. The Social Progress Index (SPI) is a larger and improved version of earlier attempts to go beyond simply using per capita production (or income or ‘Gross Domestic Product’ known as ‘GDP’) to rank the success of countries. It’s not just money that matters for people’s happiness and quality of life, personal freedoms, a sense of opportunity and social connectedness are important too. There has recently been a strong push to get a bit of balance into that conversation and this is the latest example.
The SPI includes results for 54 indicators collected for each of 132 countries. Overall, New Zealand came out top, followed by two other small countries – Switzerland and Iceland. Following not far behind were all of the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark), the Netherlands, Canada and Australia. Each country’s performance in the individual indicators varied with some poor showings in particular areas. New Zealand’s greatest strengths were in the areas of personal freedoms and rights, tolerance and access to education among others. New Zealand’s greatest challenges lay in areas to do with mental and physical health – child mortality, suicide rates, obesity to name three.
No doubt there’ll be grumblings about the actual indicators used and whether or not they really do mean the same things in different countries. But it is important to put this in context. Since forever the only way to compare the quality of life experienced in different countries has been to either use measures of economic performance like GDP or drill right down into one indicator such as infant mortality. The first approach is misleading and the second provides only a tiny part of the picture. Moving towards more relevant aggregate indicators is going to be hard and nothing will be perfect. There are social and policy challenges facing New Zealand that may not be adequately reflected in the SPI – the stubborn and unacceptable reality that Maori and Pasifika are over-represented among New Zealand’s poorest families is one example. The SPI result is not a reason to be complacent. But it is a reason to celebrate.