4 Apr 2014

NZ ranked world's most socially advanced

8:11 am on 4 April 2014

A new global index ranks New Zealand as the most socially advanced country in the world.

A United-States-based think-tank, the Social Progress Imperative, has put New Zealand first out of 132 countries, just ahead of Switzerland and Iceland, even though it is only 25th in terms of wealth per head of population.

The think-tank's report is based on 54 measures of social progress, ranging from sanitation to tolerance, inclusion and personal choice.

The Chief Human Rights Commissioner, David Rutherford, welcomes the report, saying the global financial crisis has brought home the need to look beyond purely economic ways of measuring a country's progress and wealth.

"One of the things the commission is very keen to see is our human rights issues being based on data, not just on opinion," he says, "so the sort of measures that these guys are measuring are the sort of things we want to see measured."

Mr Rutherford says, however, that while New Zealand rates very well according to many measures of human rights, it could do better in meeting the challenges of poverty, inequality and discrimination.

'Arrogant American view'

The AUT University professor of social sciences and public policy, Marilyn Waring, says there are several problems with the index.

She describes it as taking a very arrogant American view of the world, omitting indicators such as media rights, disability access and deforestation.

Professor Waring told Morning Report other indices do a better job of assessing social progress.

The Child Poverty Action Group's social security spokesperson, Mike O'Brien, says it is useful to measure social progress but the answers you get depends on the questions you ask.

He says the report is silent on income distribution and poverty and ranks New Zealand low for basic human needs (18th) and health and wellness (35th) - areas in which income has a significant impact.

"It's interesting we finish up first in terms of personal freedom and choice," Professor O'Brien says, "but for large numbers of New Zealanders choice is pretty limited considering the inadequacy of their incomes."

Environmental record criticised

A social policy analyst with the Salvation Army, Alan Johnson, who is also involved with the Child Poverty Action Group, says the report confirms that New Zealand is a great place to live for most people but in his view many people are struggling.

"We need to look at policies that impact worst on the poorest 20 percent of New Zealanders," he says.

The report does criticise New Zealand's environmental record, saying it would "benefit from greater investment in ecosystem sustainability".

Forest and Bird's advocacy manager, Kevin Hackwell, says New Zealand would have been first by a much wider margin had it not scored so poorly on environmental measures.

"If we keep on our present fixation with economic growth at all costs," he says, "it's almost certain that we will lose our top world ranking due to this 'Mine it, drill it, burn it, dam it' approach."