Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

New Zealand slips to 10th on Social Progress Index

New Zealand ranked first out of 133 countries on the "Social Progress Index" in 2014 but dropped to fifth last year and 10th-equal with Iceland this year. Photo / iStock
New Zealand ranked first out of 133 countries on the "Social Progress Index" in 2014 but dropped to fifth last year and 10th-equal with Iceland this year. Photo / iStock

New Zealand has dropped from first to 10th most "socially progressive" nation in a new global index - dragged down by our soaring house prices and bulging waistlines.

This country came first out of 133 countries on the "Social Progress Index" in 2014 but dropped to fifth last year and 10th-equal with Iceland this year. Australia improved its ranking from 10th to fourth.

New Zealand still ranks first for mobile phones per person, personal rights, religious tolerance and tolerance for immigrants.

But it has slipped in the past year from 44th to 59th on affordable housing, from 79th to 83rd for suicide, and from 117th to 126th for obesity - the country's worst ranking on any of the 53 indicators.

"The dreadfully high obesity rates and high levels of depression remain ongoing problems that leaders need to urgently get a handle on," said Michael Green, director of Social Policy Imperative, a Washington-based think-tank that produces the annual index.

He said obesity was also a factor in New Zealand's relatively high maternal mortality rate reported as 11.2 deaths for every 100,000 live births, up from 8 for every 100,000 in last year's report and pulling our rank on that item down from 25th to 37th.

"I know some countries, the UK in particular, are finding that obesity is starting to impact on maternal mortality rates," he said.

New Zealanders saying they were "satisfied" with the affordability of housing dropped from 52 per cent last year to 47 per cent in the latest survey. Photo / File
New Zealanders saying they were "satisfied" with the affordability of housing dropped from 52 per cent last year to 47 per cent in the latest survey. Photo / File

A report yesterday by New Zealand's Perinatal and Maternal Mortality Review Committee found that 44 per cent of mothers who died while pregnant or within 42 days after giving birth between 2006 and 2014 were obese, compared with 25 per cent of all mothers.

Auckland obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Sue Belgrave, who chairs the committee, said obesity was clearly important in maternal deaths.

"The women are much more likely to be smokers, to have alcohol abuse and to be overweight," she said.

However the report found that only four women died in pregnancy or soon after giving birth in 2014, the lowest of any year since the current recording system started in 2006.

New Zealand's overall adult obesity rate has increased from 26.5 per cent in 2006-07 to 30.7 per cent in 2014-15, including 29 per cent of Europeans, 12 per cent of Asians, 47 per cent of Maori and 66 per cent of Pacific people.

The country's high suicide rate, reported in the social policy index as 10.9 suicides for every 100,000 people, is also reflected in the maternal death statistics. A quarter (22) of the 94 mothers who died in pregnancy or soon after giving birth between 2006 and 2014 took their own lives, and more than half of these (12) were Maori.

"Almost all" of the mothers who took their own lives had "relationship stress", eight had experienced family violence, and five died after their babies were aborted.

Dr Belgrave said the high maternal suicide rate reflected New Zealand's high rate of youth suicide, especially among Maori and in poorer communities.

Her report recommends that maternal mental health screening should be included as part of standard antenatal care, and women with histories of mental illness "should be referred for psychiatric assessment and management even if they are currently well".

On housing, the global index used a Gallup World Poll question asking: "In your city or area where you live, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the availability of good, affordable housing?"

New Zealanders saying they were "satisfied" dropped from 52 per cent last year to 47 per cent in the latest survey.

Mobile phone subscriptions were listed as 112.05 for every 100 New Zealanders, up from 105.8 last year.

New Zealand was ranked first on all the sub-categories of personal rights including political rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and private property rights.

It also came top for religious tolerance and on another Gallup poll question asking: "Is the city or area where you live a good place or not a good place to live for immigrants?" A near-unanimous 89 per cent of New Zealanders said it was a good place for immigrants.

At the other extreme New Zealand's second-worst ranking after obesity was 85th for greenhouse gas emissions, which increased from 510 units of carbon dioxide equivalent for every dollar of economic output last year to 535 units this year.

Top 10 countries

1. Finland: Top in nutrition and basic medical care and personal freedom and choice; second for housing and personal rights.

2. Canada: Top for access to advanced education thanks to its top-ranking universities.

3. Denmark: Top for housing and second after Norway for access to information and communications.

4. Australia: Scores ahead of NZ on health and wellness, personal safety and access to advanced education with a higher share of tertiary students in globally ranked universities.

5. Switzerland: Second-richest country on the list (after Norway) and scores highest on ecosystem sustainability.

6. Sweden: Top for environmental quality and scores well on health and wellness, personal safety and access to information and communications.

7. Norway: Richest country on the list, apart from two small oil states; topped the social progress index last year and still first for access to information and communications.

8. Netherlands: Doesn't score top in any category but has relatively balanced good scores across all items.

9. Britain: Scores highest on personal rights and access to advanced education.

10= Iceland: Top for tolerance and inclusion; also scores well for health and wellness, personal safety and access to information and communications.

10=New Zealand: Best scores for personal rights (first), tolerance and inclusion (fourth) and access to information and communications (seventh).

Social Progress Index report

- NZ Herald

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