A new ranking of 17 Western Hemisphere countries by their level of social inclusion found that the Southern Cone had some of the highest rates of inclusion in the region, while the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) had the lowest, despite some of the highest rates of political participation.
The third annual Social Inclusion Index, published on Tuesday in Americas Quarterly, ranked 16 Latin American nations and the United States. The study’s creators defined inclusion through factors including social mobility (GDP growth and poverty rates); rights (civil, political, women’s and LGBT); social investment policies; access to housing, higher education and employment; and public attitudes and behavior. This year’s index was the first to include disability rights and access to justice as indicators.
The researchers tried to break down country data by race and ethnicity, but admitted that it wasn’t possible across the board, as some countries — including Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras — don’t include this information on their census.
The index can be read many different ways, and there are a lot of different results to analyze. As Johanna Mendelson Forman, Senior Associate with the Americas Program at American University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote, the index is a valuable tool because it measures “something that was often hard to quantify: the trust that has been built and also the gaps in that trust that can push a nation to invest in human development.”
So who won?
For the second year in a row, Uruguay topped the list, scoring high in economic growth, political rights and access to housing. Even #1 wasn’t perfect, though — the country’s overall score was brought down by gender and race inequality.
Second place was a tie between Argentina and Costa Rica, which both received high marks for spending on social programs and gender equality in access to housing and economic opportunities. However, Argentina had very low rates of political participation, especially for women, and Costa Rica was in the bottom half of countries for LGBT rights.
The United States slid in at fourth place, gaining points for social spending and financial inclusion by gender and race, but losing for low perception of government responsiveness and its failure to track femicide statistics. Chile rounded out the top five, scoring high in almost all indicators except women’s rights.
In contrast, the bottom five countries — Nicaragua, El Salvador, Paraguay, Honduras and last-place Guatemala — all scored dismally low on indicators like access to secondary education, housing, women’s and LGBT rights and percentage of the population living in poverty (defined here as less than $4/day).
The countries with the strongest economic growth were Panama, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay — although Argentina may quickly drop out of the top four after defaulting on its bonds this week.
In terms of political and civil rights, Uruguay and Chile were the regional winners, while both Ecuador and Paraguay dropped in the rankings because of limitations on political activity, free speech and, in the case of Paraguay, instability following former President Lugo’s impeachment in 2012.
When it came to women’s rights, the study found a strong correlation between their measurement of women’s rights and women’s feelings about their own political empowerment and government responsiveness. The researchers suggested that governments could help improve that perception by actually changing laws and policies that directly affect women’s rights and participation, especially in the lowest-scoring countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Paraguay.
Satisfaction or apathy?
One of the most interesting findings was the contrast between overall social inclusion and civil society participation. Some of the countries with the lowest scores for civil society participation (Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Chile and the U.S.) were the top-ranked countries on the index, while the nations with high levels of participation (Guatemala, Bolivia and Paraguay) fell to the bottom of the social inclusion list.
The authors didn’t draw any specific conclusions about this result, but it raises interesting questions for our assumptions about about how popular participation and engagement support democracy and a more fair society.
Are people in the most inclusive countries actually happy with the status quo, or are they just too disengaged to even participate? In the U.S., for example, the lack of participation may have more to do with the general population’s complete lack of faith in the current political structure than satisfaction with the way things are.
By the same token, people in countries with higher participation rates, like Guatemala or Bolivia, may feel that they actually can effect change in the government and civil society through their actions, and may also see many areas that they hope to improve.
While some results don’t come as a surprise, the index provides plenty of food for thought, especially as a challenge to traditional ways of thinking about social inclusion as directly tied to economic development. While the two are certainly related, there is clearly much more going on that just GDP growth — and some countries may deserve much more credit for their social progress than they currently receive.