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How should a country's 'goodness' be measured?

Simon Anholt says we should measure a country's success through its engagement with the world, and has set up an index to that end. His No. 1? Ireland.

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A screenshot of the Good Country Index website.

Good Country Index

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Economic indicators in Ireland are finally pointing in the right direction: GDP is growing, incomes are creeping back up, and unemployment is expected to fall to single figures for the first time in eight years. Even the hordes of Irish who fled the country during the height of the 2008 financial crisis and bailout are returning home. This is good news that any government would want to trumpet.

But Simon Anholt, a policy adviser in Britain who created the “Good Country Index,” thinks it's more effective for Ireland to tout a whole different set of indicators: not how Ireland performs domestically but what it contributes internationally. Ireland, according to his new ranking, is the “goodest” country in the world – or, in other words, the world’s least selfish relative to the size of its economy. [Editor's note: The article was updated to better reflect Mr. Anholt's professional work.]

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Drawing mostly from UN data, Mr. Anholt's index measures what he says countries give and take from the world, from charity and peacekeeping forces (a positive) to how many people its armed forces kill or how many weapons it exports (negative).

But his motive is not to create an index that would have Ireland self-congratulate, or would bring Libya, which falls last on the list of 125 nations, to hang its head. Rather it is to spur a conversation.

“We live in the 21st century, in a hyper-connected globalized world. All the problems that humanity face today are global problems, none of them are capable of being resolved by any single nation anymore,” he says, citing a list from environmental degradation to drug trafficking to turmoil. “To put it in a nutshell, we live in a world of 21st century problems but it’s divided up into 17th century nation states.”

Rating national virtue

It’s a noble idea, but one that comes as nations are increasingly fixated inwardly.

In Europe it is the nationalists who are riding high on anger over austerity and economic stagnation – toying with getting rid of the euro in favor of national currencies or tightening borders for the good of domestic constituencies.

Indeed, disunity is a dominant European narrative, from British discussions of leaving the European Union to Greece’s formally putting a number on war reparations it is seeking from Germany.

In Anholt's own country, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has surged on a message of Britain first. And as the British general election nears on May 7, analysts say this race has been remarkable for precisely the lack of attention on matters outside the country.

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Even in Ireland, the “goodest” country – Arnolt expressly avoids saying “best,” to avoid value judgment – people vote, just as most everywhere else, with their pocketbooks, says Brian Lucey, a professor of finance at Trinity College, Dublin. “People are voting not even on national issues, never mind international issues,” he says.

Anholt wants to change that, by using his index to get people to think in a transnational manner. The Good Country Index takes 35 measures of countries on a variety of fronts, ranging from how many refugees they take in, to how many students they send abroad, to the amount of toxic waste they export. Those are in turn compiled into seven categories: International Peace and Security, Prosperity and Equality, Health and Wellbeing, and the like. The index ranks both on the individual categories and in an overall combination of all seven.

There are other indices that similarly attempt to redefine national "success" – for example, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof wrote today about the Social Progress Index, which tries to measure quality of life apart from single-axis, economic ratings like GDP or average household income. But Anholt hopes to go beyond simply measuring "goodness" and to stir up a movement to champion it: a Good Country Party.

Though at the moment the "party" is little more than a list where people can sign up to express agreement with its ideals, he says it could potentially appeal to 700 million people – about 10 percent of the world's population – who want their leaders to look beyond national issues.

'Only a certain kind of generosity'

For now, the index has had a more modest impact. In Ireland it’s caused some soul-searching about what it means to be “good.” Rev. Peter McVerry, a Jesuit priest who runs a homeless organization in Dublin, says that Irish people are, by nature, generous. The country is the most generous in Europe, according to a 2014 Charities Aid Foundation survey. “We are an extraordinarily generous and compassionate people by and large, and contribute to charity both at home and abroad.”

But this only tells part of the story, something underscored after Rev. McVerry watched Dublin’s homelessness hit a crisis point late last year.

“There are three different Irelands: there is an underclass of homeless and disenfranchised people; there are people who, because of the recession are struggling; and then there is a very comfortable Ireland,” he concludes. “While we are generous in giving of our surplus, there is a resistance to changing the structures that would really improve things for those at the bottom of society,” he says.

Rowland Stout, head of the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin says the Good Country index will always be a rough approximation of a very complex set of social interactions. "What they’re measuring is clearly only a certain kind of generosity [of spirit].”

Anholt agrees that there is room for argument over what constitutes "good." Not all will agree, for example, that killing people is always bad – especially if victims are “bad guys,” like terrorists. And he’s not trying to give a full portrait of any one place, but provide a comparative that gets countries talking.

“If you want to do well you have to do good,” he says. “We learned very quickly … that it’s wrong for people in power or anyone indeed to be racist or sexist. I want the next thing for people to learn is that it’s wrong to be nationalist. I want nationalism to become an ‘ism’ just as unacceptable.”