[This post was written jointly by Undral Amarsaikhan and Julian Dierkes]
On April 2, the Social Progressive Imperative released its 2014 Social Progress Index. For the first time, this included Mongolia.
The Social Progressive Index is an index of indices that measures “the multiple dimensions of social progress, benchmarking success, and catalyzing greater human wellbeing”. It is compiled by the Social Progress Imperative, as US-based non-profit funded by foundations and corporations.
Overall, Mongolia ranks 89th of 132 countries with a score of 58.97 on a 0-100 scale, higher scores indicating more social progress. That score breaks down into three dimensions:
- Basic Human Needs 53.67 (102nd)
- Foundations of Well-Being 63.67 (85th)
- Opportunity 59.56 (42nd).
SPI classifies Mongolia’s rank as belonging to a 4th tier of countries with scores from 70.66 (Kuwait, rank 40) to 58.01 (Morocco, rank 91) that also includes the BRICS, save India. Like many of the countries in this tier, Mongolia’s score varies significantly across the three dimension with an Opportunity score that ranks at the top of this tier, but Foundations of Well-Being and Basic Human Needs ranking much lower.
Ranking Mongolia vs Neighbours and Other Comparisons
Here are the scores/ranks for a small number of other countries that make for useful comparisons with Mongolia:
- China SPI 58.67 (90th) HumNeeds 73.02 (69th) Wellb 63.78 (84th) Opp 39.21 (110th)
- Indonesia SPI 58.98 (88) HumNeeds 63.65 (87) Wellb 69.42 (61) Opp 43.86 (92)
- Kazakhstan SPI 59.47(86) HumNeeds 75.14 (62) Wellb 54.80 (111) Opp 48.47 (74)
- Kyrgyzstan SPI 57.08 (93) HumNeeds 64.42 (86) Wellb 60.54 (83) Opp 46.26 (83)
- Philippines SPI 65.86 (56) HumNeeds 66.76 (81) Wellb 69.17 (63) Opp 61.63 (39)
- Russia SPI 60.79 (80) HumNeeds 72.15 (72) Wellb 63.66 (87) Opp 46.58 (81)
By the measures of the Social Progress Index, Mongolia is thus pretty similar to China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Its Basic Human Needs score puts it closer to countries like Ghana (52.39 = 103rd), India (54.48 = 100th), or Namibia (59.01 = 96th). By contrast, Mongolia ranks with countries like Latvia (59,85 =41st), the Philippines (61.63 = 39th), or South Africa (61.19 = 40th) on the Opportunity dimension.
What’s Driving Mongolia’s Score?
The SPI is calculated as an average of the score on the three dimensions. The dimensions in turn are scored on normalized 0-100 scales of three-six indicators per dimension. These indicators “are selected because they are measured well, with consistent methodology, by the same organization, and across all (or essentially all) of the countries in our sample”. The weights of the indicators within the dimension are determined by a principal components factor analysis.
Let’s look at the dimension where Mongolia is ranked highly first.
Opportunity in Mongolia
This is meant to measure the “degree to which a country’s population is free of restrictions on its rights and its people are able to make their own personal decisions, and whether prejudices or hostilities within a society prohibit individuals from reaching their potential”.
Not surprisingly, as an exemplary country of democratization certainly in an Asian context, Mongolia registers a higher score in the “personal rights” indicator than in the other three components of the opportunity dimension. The personal rights indicator includes electoral process, political participation and the functioning of government as sub categories.
Mongolians have witnessed six parliamentary and president election since the transition from one-party state-socialism. Those elections were largely conducted in a fine and calm fashion except for the case of 2008, and recognized as successful by foreign observers. There are no restrictions on establishing and registering a political once 800 signatures from supporters have been gathered. Therefore it can be said degree of political rights and freedom of speech is relatively higher in Mongolia as well as freedom of movement and private property rights since it is protected by law. Also it’s worthwhile to notice that Mongolia possesses a relatively strength compared to countries of similar GDP per capita in freedom of movement, freedom of assembly/association and political rights and ranked 35th in the world.
Personal Freedom and Choice
The next component of the opportunity dimension, “personal freedom and choice” consists of four really interesting but different indicators in terms of its performance in Mongolia. The population of Mongolia currently enjoys a high degree of freedom of religion. Most of the bigger religious groups are settled in Mongolia and there is no discrimination for individual’s choice at all. The same can be said for freedom over life choice which was calculated by a scaled question given by Gallup Poll.
But in terms of corruption, Mongolia ranked 83th in Corruption Perspective Index by Transparency International which is used for SPI. Although there is encouragement for fighting against this phenomenon from the president and government, there are still huge gaps to fill and lack of confidence in society in this topic. Transparency and good governance issues are crucial factors of social progress, but it is not applied well enough in Mongolia.
Now, let’s turn to the other two dimensions.
Basic Human Needs of Mongolians
This is the dimension that Mongolia scores lowest in. The Mongolia page identifies the following indicators as a “relative weakness” for Mongolia: water and sanitation and shelter. Within these indicators, all indicators for water and sanitation (access to piped water, rural vs. urban access to improved water, access to improved sanitation facilities) are identified as weak, as are the availability of affordable housing and indoor air pollution under shelter.
It seems then that the low score here is driven primarily by the somewhat nomadic nature of country-side living (no piped water, no improved water or sanitation facilities), and the challenges inherent in life in the ger districts in the periphery of Ulaanbaatar.
Improvement in some aspects of these scores would thus come most easily by settling pastoral herders into permanent dwellings, but this would not only be anathema to the Mongolian exultation of nomadic life, but it would be difficult to see this as social progress in a Mongolian context. That is not to say that these are not valid indicators of social progress in broad cross-national comparisons, but simply to say that there are aspects of life in Mongolia that are not well-matched by the indicators.
By contrast, the two aspects of shelter that constitute a weakness may be more obvious to address by Mongolian policy-makers. Air pollution clearly is one of the foremost challenges that has a very real impact on Mongolians’ lives.
The availability of affordable housing is measured by the Gallup World Poll. As far as I can gather there were waves of surveys in 2009 and 2010 that asked, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to provide adequate shelter or housing for you and your family?”.
I find it difficult to interpret this in a Mongolian context. The emphasis on “having enough money” suggests that this question may not mean much for the 30% or so of Mongolians who live as pastoral herders and would thus have access to a ger through their families, though a herder who might have lost his herd due to a dzud might end up not having the resources to make repairs on a ger, for example.
For residents in soum and aimag centres, it’s not entirely clear whether this question might be answered primarily in terms of “adequate shelter/housing” or in terms of the money required for such housing. Likewise for much of Ulaanbaatar, I imagine.
Clearly, housing is an urgent need in Ulaanbaatar’s city planning and in an urban context it seems fair to guess that at least some Mongolians would prefer an affordable apartment to living in a ger in the ger districts, so in that sense a greater portion of respondents in such a poll who think that they do have the funds to afford adequate housing would constitute a measure of social progress.
Foundations of Well-Being for Mongolians
When we examine the specific indicators that make up the foundations of well-being dimension, the ones that constitute a weakness are “health and wellness” and “ecosystem sustainability” virtually across the board, except for the “life expectancy” and “obesity” indicators of “health and wellness”, and the “biodiversity” indicator for “ecosystem”.
“Non-communicable disease deaths between the ages of 30 and 70” and “Outdoor air pollution attributable deaths” are based on WHO data.
Obviously, air pollution is a severe problem. However, it is also a problem with a particular context. It is primarily a problem in Ulaanbaatar and thus affects approximately 40% of the population. It is also a seasonal problem. While pollution levels are worse in the winter than in Chinese cities which have been reported on so much in the past two years, pollution is much reduced in the summer. Christa Hasenkopf looked at the Beijing-UB comparison in more detail in January 2013.
The primarily regional and seasonal impact of air pollution does not negate the utility of comparing Mongolian data to other countries, however, unlike the sanitation and water examples above and below, for example. Pollution in Ulaanbaataar can be addressed without an immediate and direct impact on nomadism, for example, and the health benefits would be immediate.
The suicide rate is given by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. I was puzzled by this last factor as I had not previously heard of Mongolia as possessing either a high or low suicide rate, in fact this had not been mentioned to me as a factor at all.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is based at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Oddly, a search for “suicide” on their webpage yields only two results, neither of which suggest themselves as a source of data. The website offers a “Causes of Death” visualization tool, but when I select Mongolia and “self-harm” as a cause, there is no data available. It looks like I will have to turn to some advice from health experts to find out more about the suicide rate in Mongolia. Tsgotbaatar B (PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University) pointed me to the website WorldHealthRatings. The data reported there is claimed to be based on WHO statistics and reports a suicide rate of 13.74/100,000 for Mongolia ranking it 36th highest in the world. The figure that is used in the SPI is slightly lower, 12.2 ranking Mongolia as 92nd for this category which is puzzling given the WorldHealthRatings comparison of suicide rates across countries. Life expectancy is listed at 67.1 years ranking Mongolia 94th in the world which also seems low.
Under the “ecosystem sustainability” header, “greenhouse gas emissions” and “water withdrawals as % of resources” appear as weaknesses. Green house emissions reference to the World Resources Institute in Washington DC. On a per capita basis, Mongolia’s emissions do seem to be high at 8.66 tCO2 (excluding “forest and land-use change activities”). Comparable figures for Indonesia and the Philippines are 3.42 and 1.59 tCO2, respectively. Given that these are 2010 figures, I can only assume that the use of coal for personal heating and also for power generation must account for these relatively high numbers. Unlike many other countries, for Mongolia, there seems to be a big difference between emissions excluding “forest and land-use change activities” and those including these activities.
The Aqueduct Country and River Basin Rankings assign Mongolia an “extremely high” water risk score based on baseline water stress, interannual variability, seasonal variability, flood occurrence, and drought severity. I suspect that Mongolia’s risk here is driven by the scarcity of water more than by any social policies and policies will have a hard time addressing this scarcity so that this factor seems to be a bit of a permanent handicap.
Global Benchmarks vs. Local Realities
Global indices like the Social Progress Index are intended to give policy-makers a point of comparison for the success of their policies, but also to inspire thinking about future directions for policies.
By necessity, such indices are dependent on comparable data and on consistent definitions of terms. This dependence inherently weakens conclusions for specific countries.
In the case of Mongolia, for example, the association of water and sanitation with progress would suggest that the government of Mongolia ought to pursue policies of settling pastoral herders (as the Chinese government is in Inner Mongolia), but few in Mongolia would see such settlement policies as “progress” even if they did lead to a higher rate of access to improved sanitation.
Global benchmarks therefore need to be interpreted in a national context.
A more complex indicator like the SPI certainly offers opportunities for much more sophisticated and interesting interpretation than GDP does for example. At the same time, just like the Human Development Index certain forms of economic, political and social development are clearly privileged over other forms by such indices.
By contrast, the water and sanitation indicators would need a more nuanced response that acknowledges that the Mongolian rural context is different and calls for different policies. But, an improvement of access to water and sanitation seems to be very much on the agenda for development of Ulaanbaatar ger districts in any case.
Greenhouse gas emissions are mostly caused by the use of coal for heating and energy production which in turn link to air pollution, so a focus on reducing air pollution would seem to address a number of issues associate with notions of social progress.
Some of the health indicators may also be impacted by the very low population density outside of Ulaanbaatar which clearly stretches a health system thinner than would be the case in more dense population scenarios at similar levels of expenditures.
Assuming for the moment that there would be broad agreement over the goal of social progress and many of the aspects of social progress that are included in the SPI and that a higher ranking is therefore desirable, what lessons does the index hold for Mongolian policy-makers?
Obviously, different strategic responses are plausible. A focus on remedying weakness or further building on strengths would be one approach, while a broad alternative might be to try to aim for across-the-board improvements.
Yet, some indicators in the SPI are more easily subject to improvement by policy than others and some of them perhaps take on more local importance than others.
Air pollution would seem to be a factor that clearly stands out as a weakness for Mongolia and also as a factor that is perceived as detrimental by many Mongolians though obviously more so by residents of Ulaanbaatar than rural Mongolians.
Likewise the indicators under health and wellness suggest areas for improvement to bring Mongolia more in line with its increasing level of income and associated level of availability of resources.
For a general sense of how Mongolia fares relative to other countries on many dimensions, see our Mongolia Scorecard.
About Undral Amarsaikhan
UNDRAL Amarsaikhan has a background in economics and journalism. He is currently official delegate of Mongolia in Asia Pacific Youth Parliament for Water and World Student Community for Sustainable Development. He tweets @uundaa.