Social Progress in Belarus: Self-Perception versus Reality

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The Belarusian government and Western analysts tend to agree about one thing: Belarus is a social state. Belarus may not be a wealthy country, Alexander Lukashenka likes to say, but it is a state that serves ordinary people.

Yet the 2015 edition of the Social Progress Index, released today, places Belarus 66th out of 133 states on social progress. According to the Index, Belarus meets basic human needs but fails to create the conditions for its citizens to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

The country lags behind Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia, as well as dozens of other states on social progress, largely due to weak personal rights and the poor health of its citizens. Belarus Digest discussed what the rankings mean for Belarus and other post-Soviet states with Michael Green, founder of the Social Progress Imperative, a non-profit that produces the Index.

Belarus No Longer Leads in the Post-Soviet Region

In most international rankings Belarus has invariably performed worse than EU member states on socio-economic indicators, but usually outranked other post-Soviet states. The British Legatum Prosperity Index and the UN’s Human Development Index clearly show this trend.

Results of the 2015 Social Progress Index, however, place Belarus between Botswana (65th) and Tunisia (67th) and behind Ukraine and Moldova. The Index is based on 52 indicators for 133 countries and draws on original research as well as data from the World Bank, the World Health Organisation, and other respectable international organisations.

Taken together the indicators reflect social progress as “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.”

The absence of GDP from its formula distinguishes this ranking from similar rankings. On the other hand, it includes personal rights, and tolerance. Both explain why Belarus no longer leads in the post-Soviet space.

“The rights of individuals to live their lives the way they want to seemed to us intrinsic to what it means to be a good society,” explained Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, in an interview to Belarus Digest. Green said development experts often “shun” rights and freedoms as “too political to create a global consensus on.”

Belarus Underperforms on Health and Personal Rights

Even though Belarusians have traditionally looked up to the EU and higher-income states, even comparisons with states in a similar income bracket are far from flattering.

Compared to 15 states with similar GDP per capita (ranging from Lebanon and Mexico to Botswana and Montenegro) on social progress, Belarus ranks 11th out of 15.

Belarus’s chief strength relative to these states remains access to advanced education - a legacy of the Soviet Union rather than Minsk’s independent achievement. The country’s relative weaknesses, on the other hand, are health and wellness, as well as personal rights.

On health and wellness Belarus ranks very low - 130th out of 133 countries, even though Minsk takes pride in the accessibility and low costs of healthcare.

According to the ranking, Belarusians are more likely to commit suicide than citizens of 127 other nations and suffer from obesity in larger numbers than citizens of 92 out of 132 other nations included in the Index.

Michael Green emphasises that all post-Soviet states “really struggle on health and wellness” issues despite “varied geographies” due to the combination of environmental factors, lifestyle, and pollution.

On personal rights, Belarus ranks 125th out of 133 countries. The score reflects political rights, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of movement, and private property rights. Belarus performs poorly on all of these dimensions even when compared to the fifteen states listed above.

Will Belarus Meet the Needs of its Citizens Better in the Future?

Ukraine outperforms Belarus in the 2015 Index because much of the statistics used to calculate it were collected before the outbreak of the war. Thus, Belarus’s ranking may improve relative to its post-Soviet neighbour in the next edition of the Social Progress index.

Commenting on Belarus’s relative strengths based on the Index, Michael Green cautions: “It doesn’t necessarily mean that Belarus does well, it just means that everyone else sucks. There shouldn’t be any comfort taken.”

Green also notes that some post-Soviet states may seem to “overperform” relative to their GDP “not because they are successful in social progress, but because they are unsuccessful in GDP.”

As is typical of composite indices, some components of the Social Progress Index seem rather arbitrary. For example, the Access to Information and Communications combines cellphone subscriptions, in which Belarus leads; the press freedom Index, in which Belarus trails behind 118 other states included in the Index; and the share of Internet users. Additionally, the large number of indicators used to compute the Social Progress scores (52) makes their magnitude challenging to interpret.

At the same time, the Index does uncover some of the most glaring shortcomings of the Belarusian “social state” – poor public health and weak personal rights. The Belarusian government rarely acknowledges either of these factors and still claims that the Belarusian state exists “for the common people.” In reality, the state meets only the very basic human needs, a low bar to strive for.

With the crisis in Ukraine on their minds, Belarusians do not seem to mind. When asked what the most important problems facing Belarus are, only 22% of respondents in the March 2015 IISEPS survey expressed concern about the violation of human rights. Four times as many (84%) mentioned rising prices.

Basic human needs are what worries Belarusians most today. Even by its own limited definition of the social state – without personal rights and freedom of choice – the government in Minsk is failing to deliver.

 

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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