The SPI may be useful — if handled with care

[Click here to read this post in Portuguese]

Hugo Pena, a doctoral student of the Graduate Program of the University of Brasília Law School, and a member of the LESG, offers his views on how the “Social Progress Index” can be useful to those working in the perspective of the Legal Analysis of Economic Policy.

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The Social Progress Index

By Hugo Pena

In this post I offer a short assessment of the “Social Progess Index” (SPI) and try to highlight how it may be useful (or may be a shortcoming) to legal scholars interested in the LAEP approach to legal analysis.

The LAEP approach proposes a rights-in-fruition analytical perspective. One of its analytic tools for evaluating public policy is positional analysis (see here, p. 13-18 [updated link here]), which involves decomposing rights into observable, measurable components. In both aspects, lawyers using LAEP might profit from a glance at the “Social Progress Index” (SPI) website. But the use of the SPI may also have some pitfalls.

Rights-in-fruition. Instead of measuring social progress through public expenditure in education, health or housing – regarded as “inputs” – the SPI favors “outputs”. For instance, “access to basic knowledge” is measured through adult literacy rate, primary, secondary and upper school enrollment, as well as gender parity in secondary enrollment. Countries are thus ranked in their performance in education not according to how much they spend, not even by what percentage of the budget they commit to it, but by observed results. Therefore, SPI data may be useful to legal scholars working under the LAEP approach.

Decomposing rights fruition into indicators. The SPI website might also be an inspiration for LAEP lawyers seeking ways to measure the fruition of rights in a given issue area. The Index offers three aggregate measures: (i) basic human needs, (ii) foundations of wellbeing and (iii) opportunity. This is what is meant by “social progress”, but it is still too broad. Each group is then subdivided in more focused indicators, and each of these indicators has specific components. For instance, basic human needs is divided in four areas: i) nutrition and basic medical care, ii) water and sanitation, iii) shelter and iv) personal safety. If one picks any of these areas, a range of yet more specific indicators is displayed. Say, “nutrition and basic medical care” is decomposed into: (i) undernourishment, (ii) depth of food deficit, (iii) maternal mortality rate, (iv) stillbirth rate, (v) child mortality rate and (vi) deaths from infections diseases. The website also explains what is meant by each of these and where the data come from. Undernourishment, thus, means “the percentage of the population whose food intake is insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements continuously”, and the source used is UN’s FAO.

Not all of the index is, however, objective measurement. In other words, not all of it is made of “outputs” properly so-called. The “opportunity” aggregates measure the strength of the protection of private property rights based on a ranking by the Heritage Foundation (an American think tank often regarded as conservative). I, or you, could come up with a different assessment of the protection different jurisdictions afford to property rights, not to mention that, according to the LAEP approach, “property” is described (see here, p. 14) as a “position” within a contractual aggregate and is articulated with complex monetary linkages that must be analyzed too.

“Political rights”, in turn, are assessed by the proponents of the PSI on a scale that ranges 1 to 7 according to the assessment of Freedom House, an NGO also sometimes regarded as conservative in its orientation – see here. One could therefore disagree with the specific bias of that organization. Some of the vocabulary and the sources thus seem in line with “good governance” approaches, shared by the IMF and the World Bank. LAEP lawyers should, thus, have a cautious, if not critical approach towards the SPI index. It is worth, in particular, reading the “methodology” and “definitions” sections to form one’s own opinion on the trustworthiness of the data. Overall, however, besides the usefulness as inspiration of a rights-in-fruition approach and of how to decompose social indicators, it is interesting to have a development index not rooted on per capita GDP growth. New Zealand, Switzerland and Iceland, by the way, rank highest on the index. New Zealand is 25th in per capita GDP, while Switzerland is 4th and Iceland is 13th.

Even if critical examination raises doubts over some of its components, glancing at the SPI might be useful for those seeking examples of what could be seen as measures of rights-in-fruition and of materials that could be used in “analytical decomposition” (what is called “analytical breakdown of the relational content of rights” see here, p. 14-15) and quantification of the fruition of rights. If used with caution, the SPI may well be a source of data for constructing one’s own indicators in conducting LAEP research on a given issue-area.


2 Responses to The SPI may be useful — if handled with care

  1. paulossampaio says:

    Several elements of SPI have been deployed from Sen’s definition of Development as freedom. The main basic needs dimensions have been also analysed by the National Council of Social Development, in Mexico (see Metodología para la Medición Multidimensional de la Pobreza en México. México: Coneval, 2009), and Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia de Estatística (see Sintese de Indicadores Sociais 2013). SPI’s indicators should be used with care in LAEP analysis, since the effective fruition of rights can be strongly influenced from a local understanding of what is seen as adequate in each country/ culture. (Paulo Sampaio)


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