Every Country Is Developing, According To The New Sustainable Development Index


A new global ranking puts Cuba at #1, and positions the US and Norway below Niger. This will come as a surprise to anyone used to seeing the Nordic countries topping every country comparison of wellbeing and progress. And more surprises are in store.

It might seem that the world needs another international development ranking the way it needs another Starbucks location. Just to name a few, there are already:

-       the influential Human Development Index (HDI), which consists of life expectancy, years of schooling, and gross national income (GNI) per capita

-       the inequality-adjusted HDI, which discounts the HDI values based on inequality

-       the Sustainable Development Goals Index (SDG Index), which tracks progress toward the SDGs

-       the Integrated Sustainable Development Index (I-SDI), which tweaks the math of the SDG Index

-       the I-SDI2, a corollary of the I-SDI that adds further complexity

-       the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which incorporates ecological footprint, life expectancy, residents’ wellbeing ratings, and inequality of life expectancy and wellbeing within a country

Another one has now been added to the mix. The Sustainable Development Index (SDI) is explained in a paper by anthropologist Jason Hickel from the January 2020 issue of Ecological Economics. It aims to be as influential in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the Human Development Index (HDI) was for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The SDI is presented as an alternative to the HDI, by incorporating an environmental dimension (the per-capita CO2 emissions per capita and material footprint).

This is genuinely a departure from standard rankings of development, which inevitably place Northern and Western European countries at the top, and sub-Saharan African ones at the bottom. Countries with heavier consumption patterns tend to score higher – reflecting and perpetuating a perception that a nation can’t become more developed without also doing more environmental damage. But this is only true up to a point.

Economists and climate scientists have been rethinking high-consuming lifestyles in light of rapid climate change. For infinite economic growth is both impossible and undesirable. On an individual level, past a certain point, happiness doesn’t increase with more money. As degrowth researcher Riccardo Mastini has written, it isn’t “growth that improves social well-being in advanced societies, but income equality.”

Similarly, ecological economist Dan O’Neill argues, “Wealthy nations, including the US and UK, are well past the turning point, which means they could substantially reduce the amount of carbon emitted or materials consumed with no loss of well-being.” At a collective level, endless consumption runs up against environmental boundaries. The planet simply can’t sustain it.

What does this mean in numerical terms? In Hickel’s analysis, a country can have a comfortable and healthy population with a gross national income (GNI) of about $14,000 per capita – and exceeding this will lead to social and environmental harms. As he writes, “There are a number of countries with relatively low income that nonetheless achieve high levels of human development. Greece, Chile, and Portugal have higher life expectancy than the US with less than half the income per capita. Costa Rica has a life expectancy that exceeds that of the US with one-fourth of the income per capita.” Thus the SDI sets an income sufficiency threshold of $20,000. A higher GNI doesn’t help a country’s score.

An alternative measure of lifestyle quality might include measures like happiness, as in Bhutan, or mental health, as in New Zealand. As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said, “Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success. It is failure.” Like the HDI, the SDI aims to be objective rather than incorporating self-reported, subjective aspects like how happy people feel they are. (The Happy Planet Index does include this.)

Thus it’s interesting how little crossover there is across these rankings. When comparing four indexes (the HDI, SDG Index, HPI, and SDI), Costa Rica appears in the top 5 in only two (the environmentally minded ones). While Chad is near the bottom in most of the indexes, the SDI instead assigns the lowest scores to some of the world’s wealthiest countries, including the US and Singapore. Interestingly, Australia is #2 according to the HDI but fourth from the bottom in the SDI.

The SDI does have some issues. It doesn’t incorporate measures of human rights, and the data isn’t very recent. As well, Hickel’s idea of what’s “easy” for governments to do (providing basic goods, achieving high human development) strikes a strange note. Sure, his notion of ease is relative. But it still understates the massive political and economic challenge of achieving poverty reduction, health promotion, and education for all.

Ultimately, it may be that the SDI’s biggest influence is in suggesting that every country in the world has a lot of work to do, in order to achieve environmentally reasonable development. Hickel writes, “no countries truly succeed at sustainable development…all countries are still “developing”: countries with the highest levels of human development still need to significantly reduce their ecological impact, while countries with the lowest levels of ecological impact still need to significantly improve their performance on social indicators.” Thus “the SDI is a metric that stands ready to measure progress toward the ecological transition that needs to happen, but which is not yet underway.”

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