How Do We Measure Progress?

This is part 1 of a lengthy series of posts on measuring progress. Each post will consist of one means of measuring progress. In all these posts will present numeric data proving that progress exists today and it is widespread, even among the poorest nations.

In this blog I will write a series of posts showing evidence that we live in an era of great progress, and that progress benefits the vast majority of mankind.

First a few ground rules:

To prove that progress is taking and has taken place, we need objective means to measure it. Just pointing to a few examples where progress takes place is no more definitive than pointing to a few examples where progress does not take place. We must look for overall trends.

Projections of the future do not count. I am astounded by the number of people who argue against progress by pointing to a negative trend that some expert or organization predicts for the future. Those who do so seem to believe that experts predictions of the future are infallible.

Far from it. In fact, based upon the best study that we have on the topic, expert predictions of the future are no more accurate than random guesses. They may turn our correct, but they may also turn out incorrect. We will not know for quite some time. For this reason, I ignore predictions of the future. I only look backwards to see what has already happened.

One year is not a long enough time period to measure progress. Progress generally consists of long-term processes that take decades or centuries to realized themselves. Within those longer time periods are plenty of short-term, temporary dips. When one looks at any individual year, it is very difficult to discern whether it is a new downward trend or another short-term and temporary dip.

Because I focus on human material progress, I do not examine trends within the natural environment. Progress is entirely compatible with environmental destruction. It is also compatible with a healthier environment. Human progress and the natural environment are completely different concepts that are only tangentially related. In this blog, I will not deal with the environment (at least for now).

Nor is inequality a valid argument against progress. It is entirely possible to have progress along with increasing inequality. It is also possible to have progress with greater equality. Just like environmental destruction, inequality is a completely separate topic from progress. As long as the vast majority benefit from progress, the fact that some people benefit more than others, does not invalidate the fact that progress has occurred.

Progress is also entirely compatible with bad events. The critics of progress are correct in that wars, epidemics, famines, depressions, political disorder and other negative events have happened in recent years. They are incorrect in the assumption that the mere existence of these bad events undermines the possibility of progress. I will argue that there has been clear evidence of progress even while these other negative events have taken place.

Progress does not, and indeed cannot, eliminate all problems. Progress often enables us to adapt to problems or lessen their severity. Progress in one area often uncovers less severe problems in other areas. Sometimes those problems are actually more severe than the original problem. Sometimes the more we solve problems, the more noticeable and inconvenient other problems become. This is all true, but this does not mean that progress does not exist.

Progress is not the same as utopia. Indeed, I will argue that the quest for utopia undermines progress. Utopians compare societies to an ideal that exists only in their brain. I compare societies with how they were previously and to other societies at the same time period. No matter how much of humanity experiences progress, problems will always exist. Utopia will never be achieved.

Progress is also compatible with entire nations or sub-national groups not being part of it. Certainly there are communities, cities, regions and countries that have not taken part in progress. It will always be possible to drill down in the data to find examples of groups where progress has not taken place.

But identifying exceptions to the trend does not disprove the trend. More importantly, there have been many examples of populations who experienced no progress in the past suddenly being transformed within one generation. There is no reason to believe that a specific population will be locked out of progress forever.

Unfortunately, there is no one metric that accounts for all dimensions of progress. So instead, I will take a broad approach by using many different development metrics. These metrics measure economic growth, poverty, agricultural production, diet, sanitation, drinking water, life expectancy, neonatal mortality, education, housing, happiness and more. I deliberately cast a broad net in order to capture as many dimensions of material well-being as possible.

One of the key problems with documenting progress is finding good metrics that both go far enough back in time and cover the entire world. Not surprisingly, there is far more data related to recently industrialized nations than those same societies in, say, 1500. Nor is it surprising that data is far easier to acquire for wealthy nations than poor nations. In many cases, I need to use different methods for different time periods and different nations. While not exactly comparing apples to oranges, it is a bit like comparing Gala apples and Red Delicious apples to Fuji apples. This is less than ideal, but it is hard to do otherwise.

The metrics that I use come from a wide range of official government and NGO sources. I present the metrics in a series of graphs. Unfortunately, the scope of the data is not easily digestible in static graphs. If you would like to inspect the data in more detail, I encourage you to explore two websites that have spent a great deal of time gathering important metrics: HumanProgress (at and Our World in Data (

Since there are over 200 nations today, it is not realistic to examine development metrics for every one of them in this blog. And averages can cover up variation between rich and poor nations. We need a way to narrow the sample to a manageable number, but not do so in a way that creates a distorted impression of overall trends. In order to ensure that the data covers a very broad segment of the world’s population, I decided to focus on four distinct categories of nations. To reduce visual clutter I will show each group in a separate graph.

The first group, which I will call the “Wealthy 12”, consists of twelve Western nations that industrialized early and currently have very high standards-of-living. Those nations are the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. The Wealthy 12 gives us a good overview of the trends within the wealthiest nations.

The second group that I will show data for is what I call the “Populace 12”. This group consists of twelve of the most populous nations that did not have high per capita GDP in 2018. This group consists of China, India, Brazil, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey. Together these nations make up 58% of the world’s population and cover every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The Populous 12 gives us a broad overview of trends for people who live outside the wealthiest nations.

The third group is what I call the “Bottom 20”. This group consists of the 20 nations with the lowest scores on the United Nations Human Development Index in 1990 (the earliest year available). The nations in this group consist of Afghanistan, Benin, Burma, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Gambia, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The Bottom 20 gives us a good overview in trends in the most desperately poor nations in the world. If there is any group of nations that should lack evidence of progress, it is these twenty nations.

The last group of nations is what I call the “Transformative 15”. This group consists of the nations that experienced at least one generation of very strong economic growth after 1950 (or 20+ years of per capita GDP growth of over 3 percent). This level of economic growth would lead to a doubling of the standard-of-living of their people within one generation.

The Transformative 15 includes representatives from many different regions and cultures: Spain, Ireland, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia, China, India, Israel, Botswana, Trinidad, Puerto Rico and Chile. The Transformative 15 gives us a good overview of the nations who experienced the fastest economic growth. It tests whether very rapid economic growth translates into positive changes throughout the society.

Together, the Wealthy 12, Populous 12, Bottom 20 and Transformative 15 are a solid set of groups to test to whether the world has experienced widespread progress over the last few decades. Given the breadth and diversity of the four groups it seems unlikely that any broad trends will be missed by narrowing the sample from all nations in the world. In some cases, I will supplement these four groups with other data that seems relevant.

Each metric varies greatly in the number of nations and years with available data. I have done my best to be as comprehensive as possible given data that is accessible on the Internet. In order to facilitate visual inspection I have added an “Average” displayed in a thick black line wherever there are more than four nations with data. This average is sometimes jagged when individual data points are missing.

Wherever data permits, I will focus on women rather than the total population to show that progress has not excluded them. Note also that the use of these categories leads to some double counting. China, India and Indonesia are in both the Populace 12 and the Transformative 15. Congo is both in the Populace 12 and the Bottom 20.

In future posts, I will show you all the good data.

If you would like to learn more about this or other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.


The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

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