MANILA, PHILIPPINES - Even poor countries can afford basic social protection like financing health care, cash transfers to the poor, and elderly and child protection.

That is one of the most striking results of the newly developed Social Protection Index (SPI) created by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and its partners. The index shows that the ability to provide appropriate social protection to a nation's citizens is not only a question of the country's wealth.

The SPI will give governments and international agencies a new tool to assess and compare the social protection efforts of countries throughout Asia and the Pacific region. While social protection is growing in importance in the fight against poverty and in meeting the Millennium Development Goals, there have been very few attempts to systematically quantify the overall impact of social protection activities in terms of expenditure, beneficiaries or the impact of the programs. The SPI was created to fill this void.

"The development community's commitment for alleviating poverty, and to assist our developing member countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals in the Asia-Pacific region remains the priority challenge for ADB," said Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, ADB Vice-President of Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development. "This publication on the Social Protection Index provides us with an important and so far unique tool to have a better understanding of the challenges that are ahead of us."

The SPI is measured between zero and 1.0. Even though Japan and South Korea top the list, countries considered relatively wealthy didn't always score higher than poorer neighbors. While India and Pakistan have similar levels of per capita gross domestic product, they score very differently on the SPI. India rates a 0.46 while Pakistan is at 0.07.

On average, countries in the region spend just under 5% of their gross domestic product on social protection and achieve an overall average coverage level of 35% of key target groups, which include the unemployed, elderly, poor, and disabled.

The index provides a combined measurement tool of the extent to which Asian and Pacific countries provide welfare, labor market, social security, health insurance, micro-credit, child protection, targeted education, and health support programs to their citizens, especially those living below the poverty line.