The following is a conversation between Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The Social Progress Imperative uses data to influence policies and investments to better serve all of humanity. They partner with leaders in every sector – government, business, and civil society – to meet the pressing needs of communities and equip them with the right information to tackle urgent global challenges. And here to discuss with us some of their latest work is Michael Green, the chief executive officer of the Social Progress Imperative.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Michael!
Michael: Denver, it’s a great pleasure to be with you!
We manage what we measure. If we measure better, we can create a better world.
Denver: So, the organization was founded nearly a decade ago. Tell us about how and why it came to be, and maybe some of the people who were behind it.
Michael: There’s a saying in Britain that the British empire was built on the playing fields of Eton. And I didn’t go to Eton, but in some sense the Social Progress Imperative was born on the playing fields of the school I went to with Matthew Bishop, my sometimes co-author. So we’re old high school friends. We collaborated on books. And after the financial crisis of 2008, we wrote this book called The Road from Ruin, so it was a spectacularly badly-timed attempt to try and give an optimistic take on what we could do to build back better from the embers of that last global crisis. No one really wanted to read a positive book when we put it out there.
Well, one of the things we wrote about in that book was how the financial crisis in 2008 had, to at least some degree, been a crisis of measurement. Not just measurement of the balance sheet of Lehman Brothers, but the way we measure the success of our societies. Economists like me had been very much pleased with ourselves thinking that we’ve cracked the whole way to do macroeconomics, that economic growth of low inflation; low unemployment was there forever, and that was all going to do us all good. And then, we fell off a cliff.
So there was something wrong with the dashboard we were using to measure the success of our societies. That was an idea we threw out in the book. But then actually, it was at a World Economic Forum meeting, I think Matthew was challenged by a group of social entrepreneurs to say, “Well, let’s do something about this.” So that was where a kind of a posse formed with an idea to “let us think about what are the metrics we need to create to build back better from this global financial crisis.”
So that was where the Skoll Foundation came on board, the Avina Foundation from Latin America, and later on, Deloitte joined us. We then brought in Michael Porter from Harvard Business School to chair our advisory board. And of course he’s the world’s guru on competitiveness but also has got some extraordinary track record of being able to turn data into action. And that was the idea. It was: Could we create a data tool that would actually drive action to enable all men, all stakeholders in society – government, business, civil society – to actually build back better from that crisis?
So that was really where the kind of Social Progress Imperative came from, with a kind of challenge. How do we create the measurement tools? Because we manage what we measure. If we measure better, we can create a better world. What are the tools we have to build to make that happen?
Denver: Yes. That’s a great backstory. Thank you for it. It is kind of incredible when you’re thinking about GDP as being the one and only indicator of a healthy society and how we just accept things for decades until you wake up one day and say, “It’s a factor, but there’s a lot more to it.” Well, we have two major reports to discuss.
We have the People’s Report with Catalyst 2030, but again, what you’ve just talked about, the 2021 Social Progress Index was just issued earlier this month. What exactly does that report encompass?
Michael: So the Social Progress Index was kind of the idea we came up with as a tool to reshape the conversation on the progress of our societies. Because GDP itself is quite a useful tool. It tells us how much our economy is producing, and we can see whether the pie is growing or not. But it tells us nothing about how that pie is divided up, et cetera, or if there are some equity issues.
And so, the big idea with the Social Progress Index was to create not a replacement for GDP, but a complementary measure of social progress independent of economic indicators, a measure that could sit alongside GDP and tell us whether our economic growth is really making lives better. So, that was the big idea. We’ve been doing it since 2014 for countries. This year, we released reports covering 168 countries. We’ve got 10 years of time series data. And what we found is, well, first of all, what we’ve seen over the last decade is that the world actually has got a bit better. So, progress is happening.
I think sometimes we read the news, and we think everything is getting worse, but actually there’s a whole bunch of ways in which the world is getting better. Huge leap forward over the last 10 years in terms of access to information because of the spread of mobile phones, internet, et cetera, but also really solid improvements in things around nutrition, around access to water and sanitation, access to electricity. Those basic building blocks of development. Progress that’s not fast enough, but there has been solid progress.
But what we also see with the world very clearly in the last 10 years is we’re going backwards on rights. There’s been a real setback in rights in the world in the last 10 years. That’s been a really significant challenge. And all in all, I mean I think our basic projection on the back of this is that the world is way off track in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. That’s a hugely ambitious plan.
So that’s what we kind of found from the world as a whole. And then, what we’re able to do is then look at all the various different countries. And what we find is that, of course, no surprise, sort of the Nordic countries come out best. So Denmark, Finland– actually, Norway is at the top, then Denmark, Finland, and Iceland are the top four countries.
Denver: You have a lot of women leaders there, don’t you?
Michael: I was going to say, Denver, I can’t say it’s a statistically significant finding, but it’s telling. I don’t think it’s any accident that we’ve got women leaders coming out on top, and obviously, in the kind of the best performing countries. We also have Germany that’s had a woman leader for a long time and in New Zealand as well, Jacinda Ardern. So women-leaders are doing very well in the rankings.
What we also see is that there’s real differences even amongst some of the richest countries. So, for example, the United States comes quite some way down the rankings, coming in 24th overall, and very much behind– actually, bottom of all the G7 countries. And that’s a trend that we’ve seen since we started building the index. And the US is actually one of the only countries to actually go backwards on social progress in the last 10 years.
Denver: Yes. I think we’re one of four countries or something like that, along with Sudan. So that’s not exactly anything to write home about.
Michael: It’s no good. And I think it’s very clear that this is not about a short-term effect. This is not about any particular presidency or whatever. What it really tells us is that the United States has a chronic social progress problem. It’s around issues of safety, and not just around the homicides but around things like road safety, just as bad. Health indicators. For a country that spends off the charts on a percentage of GDP on healthcare, the health outcomes are actually really poor. And then, of course, a range of other areas including education, et cetera. It’s just not good enough.
If you compare how the US should be performing, countries of its wealth should be performing and how the US is performing, America’s lack of social progress is costing a quarter of a million lives a year. And so, actually, if the US could just be performing as well as the average country on social progress relative to its GDP, you could be saving a quarter of a million lives each year.
Denver: Can we make one more point, too, about not blaming a particular politician? Because you know what happens sometimes? It masks the real problem. And we think if we just get rid of that one person, everything will be fixed. And it’s usually deeper than that. And we’re just fooling ourselves to think that that one person is going to be the cause. It’s, as you say, far more systemic.
Michael: That’s right. And we’ve talked about how if you compare how the US should be performing, countries of its wealth should be performing and how the US is performing, America’s lack of social progress is costing a quarter of a million lives a year. And so, actually, if the US could just be performing as well as the average country on social progress relative to its GDP, you could be saving a quarter of a million lives each year.
Another thing — that’s a great challenge for new administrations coming in. If you’re going to be building reconstruction, recovery plans, make that your goal. Make the real things that matter to real people like that the goal of policy, not some arbitrary financial measure.
The choice of the way we’re developing is what is driving the climate crisis, not inherently progress itself. We don’t have to make a choice between progress and sustainability. Inclusive and sustainable development are two sides of the same coin.
Denver: Let me ask you about climate change, Michael. How can a country have an inclusive and sustainable economy, and at the same time, make real and significant change in that economy to address climate change?
Michael: So this has been the big focus of the 2021 Social Progress Index Report. Obviously, with the COP26 summit, but then also because our model of development is really in crisis… the world has been on a kind of a bull run of human progress over the last 50 years. If you think about not just increasing economic indicators, the number of people lifted out of poverty. We’ve lived through an extreme period of progress, but it’s all taking place at the cost of the environment, and in particular, getting us to the brink of a climate crisis.
So, one of the big questions is: If we’re going to tackle the climate crisis, tackle global warming, do we have to do so at the expense of human progress? And what we see broadly as it goes is that countries with higher GDP tend to emit more greenhouse gases. So, if we’re going to keep our economic growth going and keep our social progress going, do we have to keep increasing our greenhouse gases?
So, what we’ve done in this year’s report is we’ve had a look and looked at different countries’ different stages of development. And what we’ve seen is that at any level of social progress, there are countries producing more and less greenhouse gases per capita. So, for example, in a country like Australia, which has the same level of social progress, as high level of social progress as Sweden, but Australia produces five times as much greenhouse gases per person. The US is actually at the same level of social progress as Costa Rica and produces six times as much greenhouse gases per person for the same level as social progress. Qatar, same level of social progress as Ghana, 24 times as much greenhouse gases. So, there’s huge differences in the efficiency with which countries produce their social progress in terms of the greenhouse gases produced.
And then, we did an assumed relationship. What would happen if at each level development, each country was performing as the best in its peer group in terms of producing greenhouse gases? And what we found is if we did that, we actually could get the world today within the sustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions. And we actually could see further progress towards the SDGs and stay within those limits.
Now, that’s a kind of hypothetical scenario. But what it’s telling us is the choice of the way we’re developing is what is driving the climate crisis, not inherently progress itself. We don’t have to make a choice between progress and sustainability. Inclusive and sustainable development are two sides of the same coin.
Denver: And that’s a very inventive way to use the data and to make a point.
Now, Michael, we hear a lot about net zero and, boy, that is a wonderful aspiration. But breaking it down to an individual, what is the average greenhouse gas consumption currently per person? And practically speaking, what do we need to get it down to in order to be able to sustain the environment?
Michael: So currently for the world as a whole, every human being is putting out about 6.3 tons of greenhouse gas equivalent per year. That’s the global average. Now, in some countries it is much higher. Other countries are going to be much lower. What we see in the literature is that a sustainable level of greenhouse gas emissions per capita is about 1.7 tons. Because obviously people talk about net zero. Net is net of what’s absorbed. So we could put out 1.7. 1.7 is good if this 1.7 gets absorbed, so that makes it net zero. So that’s why. So we don’t have to stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely. We have to get it within sustainable levels. That seems to be the magic. About 1.7 tons per capita is a crucial thing.
I think also looking at it per capita is a good way of looking at it. Because we’re saying we each and every individual on this planet has an equal share to this planet. So surely, we should also have an equal share to how much greenhouse gas we can emit within sustainable levels. And I think that does affect the debate going on at the moment at COP between the rich world and the developing world. And I think it’s Prime Minister Modi has actually been making this point about: we should be talking about greenhouse gases per capita because we all have an equal share. And I think those of us in countries that are emitting huge amounts per capita actually have to think about what we’re doing.
Denver: Doing the math off the top of my head, we’re talking about 25%, maybe 28% or something like that, in terms of what we’re doing per average across the planet currently.
You mentioned earlier this declining personal rights and inclusiveness. And I guess from looking at the report, this is across all regions, all levels, social and economic. Really disturbing. Give us a few of the key findings that you found there.
Michael: So the really strong global trends are around personal rights. I think a lot of this has to do with a range of different forms of populist authoritarian governments that have been emerging. Now, obviously, we’re aware of– there’s been the Trump administration in the US. We’ve got Putin. We’ve had Bolsonaro in Brazil. But there’s a range of other forms of populism as well, including what’s been going on in Poland and Hungary and other countries. So, it just seems there’s a really broad trend where we’re seeing a kind of encroachment on the rights of the individual, which is really coming from what I call the political perspective.
Not happening everywhere. And I should give a shout out. I think the most improved country in social progress over the last 10 years has been The Gambia. And actually, a lot of that has been driven by some really positive political changes so far in The Gambia. So we’ve all seen some positive progress in some places.
On inclusivity, it’s slightly different. I think we’re a mixed picture. We certainly have seen these concerning issues around discrimination and violence against minorities. We see that in the US. We see that in my country, in the UK, et cetera. But we do also see in some other countries, we’ve actually seen improvements in inclusivity measures, in countries like Italy.
So, I think there’s a sense whereby in some countries, actually, public attitudes are becoming more inclusive and more tolerant. So maybe it might give us hope that this might drive a different kind of politics in the future.
Denver: Michael, is there any measure that you find to be exceptionally elusive? Something that you would love to get more data on and have greater insight about and would better help us ascertain the social progress a nation is making, but it’s just hard to come by?
Michael: Denver, if you want to see a man cry, ask me that question because there’s so many ways we’d love to improve the data. I think we could say there’s enough data out there. We’re using 53 different indicators, so the Social Progress Index gives a pretty robust measure, but there’s lots of ways we’d love to enhance it.
If I had to pick one, I think it would be data around disability. As we have an ever-aging global population; the demographic age shift is happening incredibly quickly. More of us are going to be living with fragility and disability as a feature of our lives. I don’t want to measure how many of us have fragility and disability. That’s just inevitable. What I’d love to be able to measure is: Are we building societies that are inclusive for people living with fragility or disability? Accessibility and all those kinds of issues. And I think that’s a really big public policy issue that’s coming over the next half a century, and I’d love to have the data to get ahead of that and look at it.
Denver: I can’t agree with you more. That is probably the most overlooked thing in society right now. It’s going to come like…the silver tsunami they call it. Is it going to be a tsunami? And so few, if any nations are really preparing for it. Have you looked at this data on a regional or city level in terms of trying to break it down? Because that’s where we can get a lot of action.
Michael: Yes. So as soon as we started working on the Social Progress Index, people have been saying to us, “Can we break this down regionally?” So we’ve been doing that for a number of years now. We went with a European commission on a regional social progress index for regions of the EU. We’ve done a state-by-state and district-by-district index for India and a host of other different countries.
What we’re really excited about at the moment is actually doing very localized indices down to the level of very granular communities. So we’ve done a number of pilot projects in the US– in San Jose, California, Jackson, Mississippi, and a range of other places where we’ve looked at social progress down to the level of census tracts. So these are communities of about 5,000 people. And what we found is that for city governments, for public health bodies, it’s a really, really powerful data set as a way of understanding the needs of communities and focusing resources better.
So, actually something that we’ve got under preparation now is early New Year, we’re going to be releasing a 500-city dataset from the US. So the 500 largest US cities, down to the level of census tracts, which I think is going to give really powerful, granular data to really guide decision makers in the philanthropic, government, and also business space.
Denver: Very cool. And that’s just wonderful because it’s so much easier for a community or a city to act on this information than it is for an entire nation, so that’s going to really pay huge dividends.
Another one of your undertakings has been the People’s Report that you conducted in conjunction with Catalyst 2030. And if the Social Progress Index is sort of a macro view, the 17,000 people who participated in this might be akin to the micro view. Tell us about Catalyst 2030 and the report itself.
Michael: So Catalyst 2030, which was a collaboration of social entrepreneurs, launched to really kind of put the SDGs, the sustainable development goals, back on track. Our projection is that we are about 50 years off track to achieving the SDGs. So the Catalyst 2030 community believes, as very much I do, that the solutions are out there. And if we can get the right resources flowing to the right solutions, we can really accelerate progress towards the SDGs.
So that community came together, and one of the ideas that emerged in the community was: Could we really put the people’s voices at the center of the debate? Because so much of what happens, virtually at the moment but normally in person in New York in September, is about grandstanding by heads of state and heads of government.
And so, the idea was: Let’s put the voices of the people really in the center of the debate using a sort of polling device, so it would actually reach out not just to the most connected people in the world, but some of the most marginalized communities. And the Catalyst 2030 community was just the perfect vehicle for doing that because the social entrepreneurs connect to some of the most marginalized people in the world. Whether it is young unemployed people in townships in South Africa, sex workers in India, there’s a whole network of members of Catalyst 2030 who could reach out to those voices that need to be heard.
So that was the idea. We teamed up with a fantastic group called Play Verto who do wonderful gamified polling device solutions, and through the Catalyst Network pushed this out. A hundred and thirty Catalyst members took part in pushing it out, 43 languages. I think we’ve got a world record on the number of languages this survey was translated into. We managed to reach 17,000 different respondents, players who came back and told us their story about their lives, which we’re able to play back to the world as part of the UN discussions in September.
Denver: Let me ask you about a couple of those responses. One would be hunger. Of the people who responded, how many of them go to bed hungry at night?
Michael: So we’ve got about a fifth of the respondents said they go to bed hungry, and it was nearly a third of respondents in Africa. But we also found that more than 1 in 10 respondents in North America and Europe said they were going to bed hungry.
And I think that that self-reported data is so rich in that way because we can talk about there being no hunger in North America or Europe, but actually there are people going to bed hungry in our countries. And I think representing that and sharing that in the data was really powerful, and a certainly very shocking response from the data for me.
Denver: What did the respondents have to say about their mental health?
Michael: So I think one of the big concerns during the COVID crisis has been: What’s going to happen to people’s mental health through the stresses and through the lockdowns, et cetera? I think that what we found was that half of the people around the world reported deteriorating mental health as a result of COVID. And then strikingly, the biggest response was actually in Europe. Sixty-eight percent of people reported deteriorating mental health in response to COVID.
Denver: What about the future? Raising children. How do people feel about the future, kids, and their own communities?
Michael: I like this question a lot, asking people: Do you want to raise children in your community? Which I think says a lot about how people feel about the future and whether they can just keep going. And 29% of respondents said they wouldn’t raise kids in their own community, which I think is absolutely terrifying and says something about real concerns and worries about the future that many people have, I think, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa region.
We need to be not despairing because progress is impossible. We must be frustrated because progress is possible, could be possible, and is so easy to achieve if we just stopped doing stupid things. And that frustration should drive us into the righteous anger to be saying, “Let’s get this right. Let’s get ourselves off and get this right.”
Denver: Having read the report, that was the most telling response to me. That just says so much that you can’t even put into words. It really is profound.
You talked about the SDGs agenda and their objectives for 2030, and you said a moment ago it might take us 50 years to get there. This is sort of a goal-setting question. How do you think we should look at 2030? Is it going to be something that we’re going to fall so short on that people are going to get kind of discouraged? Is there a way to kind of continue to make that progress? Certainly not give up on those things, but have something that will motivate people to do the very best that they can, as opposed to something, which in some of these 17 categories is going to fall so woefully short?
Michael: I think this is the real challenge that we have, is it’s so easy to fall into despair. And that throws you into the hands of the cynics who say that nothing can be done. It was actually– I think to steal from Galileo Galilei, “and yet it moves.” In so many different places, we are seeing solutions being delivered that are making lives better. And in so many quiet ways, the world is getting better.
So the challenge is not to take a failing system and turn it around. It’s actually: How do we find those solutions and really scale them and accelerate very quickly? And I’m an optimist, having worked in government and different sectors. I’m an optimist because I think if we just stopped doing stupid things, we can achieve so much progress. The solutions really are out there. And I think that that’s the spirit we have to communicate to people.
We need to be not despairing because progress is impossible. We must be frustrated because progress is possible, could be possible, and is so easy to achieve if we just stopped doing stupid things. And that frustration should drive us into the righteous anger to be saying, “Let’s get this right. Let’s get ourselves off and get this right.” So that’s why I’m fundamentally an optimist. I think the solutions are out there. If we can just get the resources to the right solutions, address the most pressing problems with the right solutions, we could actually make huge progress.
Denver: This has certainly been the challenge in 18 months for everybody, and particularly, I think for leaders of organizations. What have you found, Michael, to be the keys to leadership during a crisis? And is there anything from this experience that you’re going to take away, that’s going to help inform your leadership in the future?
Michael: We were lucky at Social Progress Imperative when this crisis hit that we were already a virtual organization. And so, we’re just scattered around a number of different countries working virtually with no set office, so we never experienced that disruption. But what we did find was how we were all facing very different needs. There were some people on the team who had young families who were absolutely swamped having their kids at home and trying to do homeschooling, offered in not the best sort of physical circumstances. On the other hand, you could have someone who was living on their own, who was then very isolated.
So I think what we learned was we had to kind of keep checking in with each other, keep supporting each other, being flexible with each other. You know, I have to say having people working in different time zones became a godsend because actually, we could be very flexible with each other in managing and juggling that. So I think it really reaffirmed to us the importance of flexibility and just staying in touch with each other. So we always made sure that we had a start-of-the-week check-in, end-of-the-week check-in and really made sure that we were supporting each other and also being kind to each other and forgiving each other if events got in the way. And with that, you really could help manage and juggle a lot.
So I think we actually, the COVID crisis versus an organization, I think we weathered very well. We’d love to see each other again in person, and hopefully that’s going to be some time soon.
Compared to the resources of the government and the capital markets, philanthropy is always going to be a tiny resource. So, you have to think about it as being: how to be catalytic, and that’s the sweet spot for philanthropy. And that means you’ve got to have high risk/high return approaches and always be thinking about: How do you leverage and influence other bigger pools of capital?
Denver: It sounds like you were very intentional about it, and that makes all the difference.
Let me close with this, Michael. We started a conversation you have written extensively about– philanthropy, most notably Philanthrocapitalism. Taking into account the scale and magnitude of these challenges that we’ve been discussing, what do you believe is the most effective role philanthropy can play in trying to address them?
Michael: I think I always go back to the thing that Bill Gates said to us, so we, Matt and I, quoted in the book, which is when he said “The Gates Foundation is a tiny, tiny organization.” And he’s absolutely right.
Compared to the resources of the governments and the capital markets, philanthropy is always going to be a tiny resource. So, you have to think about it as being: how to be catalytic, and that’s the sweet spot for philanthropy. And that means you’ve got to have high risk/high return approaches and always be thinking about: How do you leverage and influence other bigger pools of capital? That’s the sweet spot for philanthropy.
My reflection, more than 10 years on since Philanthrocapitalism came out, is I do not often enough splutter into my cornflakes in the morning about something shocking and audacious that philanthropy has done. I think it’s still too conservative. I think it’s still too prone to following conventional wisdoms. I think it’s happier failing with the crowd than doing things that are radical and risk being criticized.
Denver: A little more daring would go a long way. Tell us about the Social Progress Imperative website and some of the information visitors will find on it.
Michael: Come to socialprogress.org. You will find all the data for the 2021 Social Progress Index and going back 10 years. So we have all the data available; the methodologies are all there, full transparency. We love feedback. Feedback makes us stronger, helps us improve the products. You’ll also find all the reports around sustainability work and also a host of case studies about the work we’ve been doing with communities around the world, our links to all the different indexes we’ve been building all the way from the United States through to Australia.
Denver: Great stuff. And of course, for the People’s Report, you can go to Catalyst2030.net and find it there too. So, I want to thank you, Michael, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.
Michael: Denver, it’s a great pleasure to be with you, and thank you so much for a great conversation.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.