The Most Popular Country in the World

Nations are often spoken of as if they were individuals: Russia and Ukraine are fighting, China says Japan should stay out of its territorial waters, Iran is unfriendly to Americans. A lot of this comes down to basic expediency: it is a lot easier to refer to countries as monolithic entities than to get into the specifics (“Brazil says” rather than “the Brazilian government says”, for example).

But countries have long been personified for reasons other than simple ease. Everything that they embody — their political institutions, culture, people, climate, geography, etc. — amounts to a cohesive identity or national character of sorts. And countries, like individuals, can be loved, hatred, admired, and in some way or another related with. (Within International Relations, we study the phenomenon of “nations as persons” and whether it has any legitimacy or basis.)

They even have to worry about social standing: just as we worry about our image and status among a community of people, so too do the countries of the world content with how they are perceived by the international community. Hence why governments engage in public relations — whether through formal diplomatic channels, the funding of cultural institutions, or the launching of state news broadcasters — and why things like the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index exist.

Spearheading the fascinating world of nation branding — which has only become more relevant in our increasingly globalized and interconnected world — the survey asks over 20,000 people across 20 countries their perceptions of 50 countries. Each nation is scored on factors ranging from exports and governance to culture and people.

As The Atlantic reported, five-year first-place winner America has been overtaken by Germany, which had previously occupied the top spot in 2008. Here is the top ten as of 2014:

1. Germany

2. United States

3. United Kingdom

4. France

5. Canada

6. Japan

7. Italy

8. Switzerland

9. Australia

10. Sweden

Interestingly, the top ten has not changed much since 2010, which was as far back as I could find data (the survey was launched in 2005). The same countries more or less occupy the same spots, rising or falling by only a point or two (but never falling off entirely).

You can read the methodology of the report here. According to an official press release, Germany’s burgeoning international image can be attributed to several factors, including — of all things — “sport excellence”, which was “the largest gain seen this year for any single attribute across the 50 measured nations”.

Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor, explains, “Germany appears to have benefited not only from the sports prowess it displayed on the world stage at the FIFA World Cup championship, but also by solidifying its perceived leadership in Europe through a robust economy and steady political stewardship. Germany’s score gains in the areas of ‘honest and competent government’, ‘investment climate’, and ‘social equality’ are among the largest it achieved across all the aspects covered by the NBI 2014 survey.”

In contrast, the USA has shown the least impressive NBI gain among the developed nations. While it still is seen as number one in several areas, including creativity, contemporary culture, and educational institutions, its role in global peace and security only ranks 19th out of 50 nations.

Meanwhile, here is why the U.S. (as well as nascent rival Russia) fared less well this time around.

Xiaoyan Zhao, Senior Vice President and Director of NBI at GfK, comments, “In a year of various international confrontations, the United States has lost significant ground where tension has been felt the most acutely. Both Russia and Egypt have downgraded the U.S. in an unprecedented manner, particularly in their perception of American commitment to global peace and security, and in their assessment of the competence of the U.S. government.  However, on a global level, it is Russia that has received the strongest criticism from public opinion.”

In previous years, Russia had shown upward momentum – but in the 2014 NBI study, it stands out as the only nation out of 50 to suffer a precipitous drop. Russia’s largest decline is registered on the Governance dimension, especially for the attribute of its perceived role in international peace and security. This is the most drastic score drop seen for any single attribute across the 50 nations. Overall in this year’s study, Russia has slipped three places to 25th, overtaken by Argentina, China, and Singapore.

The two countries cannot seem to shake off their legacy of global meddling and the subsequent negative impact it is having on their international standing, although Russia seems worse affected by it than America; subsequently, I am curious about the national breakdown of the respondents and how much certain nationalities dragged down or pulled up the overall score for certain countries.

In any case, the U.S. is hardly in bad shape, all things considered, and much of that clearly has to do with the heft of its “soft power” — from its music and entertainment media (especially film), to its top-notch universities still-attractive (if not weakening) civil values, America projects a lot of influenced and a positive image around the world. It is little wonder that so many other countries, including China, are seeking to emulate this soft power approach by promoting cultural and ideological products.

I would wager that the rest of the top ten ranks highly for similar reasons: all of them either have strong, globally-exported cultures (especially the U.K., France, and Italy), or enjoy a reputation for good governance, high-quality of life, and benign foreign policy (Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland).

In any case, Germany’s status as a brand champion is hardly surprising, all things considered. From its robust (if still shaky) economy and (relatively) pacifistic foreign policy, to policies like free college tuition and strong arts funding, the country has a lot going for it across different sectors. Its well-trained workers and less-indebted homeowners seem better off and happier than counterparts elsewhere in the world, and while political cynicism is as high among the German populace as it is anywhere else in the post-recession world, national pride — and with it a sense of purpose as a global role model — is growing (albeit with a degree of restraint, given the lingering shadow of the early to mid-20th century).

In the end, countries — again, like people — can learn a lot from one another with respect to national performance, be it in the real of politics and economics or even in sports. Not only is excelling in these areas a valuable end in itself, but as the study’s press release observes:

“International diplomacy clearly reaches beyond the realm of public opinion – however, policy makers need to be keenly aware that the way in which a country is perceived globally can make a critical difference to the success of its business, trade and tourism efforts, as well as its diplomatic and cultural relations with other nations. As our partner Simon Anholt often says, the only superpower left in today’s world is global public opinion.”

What are your thoughts?

Africa Rising

When one thinks of Africa, prosperity and progress rarely come to mind. In the minds of most Westerners especially, the name conjures up chronic instability, strife, poverty, and (more so lately) disease. But the people of Africa — incredibly diverse and culturally rich — are nothing if not resilient, and they have endured these widespread (though often exaggerated) hardships with remarkable tenacity and perseverance.

The end result is a broadly improved outlook for this fast-growing continent’s future, whose vast potential already being realized, according to a special report by The Economist:

War, famine and dictators have become rarer. People still struggle to make ends meet, just as they do in China and India. They don’t always have enough to eat, they may lack education, they despair at daily injustices and some want to emigrate. But most Africans no longer fear a violent or premature end and can hope to see their children do well. That applies across much of the continent, including the sub-Saharan part, the main focus of this report.

African statistics are often unreliable, but broadly the numbers suggest that human development in sub-Saharan Africa has made huge leaps. Secondary-school enrollment grew by 48% between 2000 and 2008 after many states expanded their education programmes and scrapped school fees. Over the past decade malaria deaths in some of the worst-affected countries have declined by 30% and HIV infections by up to 74%. Life expectancy across Africa has increased by about 10% and child mortality rates in most countries have been falling steeply.

A booming economy has made a big difference. Over the past ten years real income per person has increased by more than 30%, whereas in the previous 20 years it shrank by nearly 10%. Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent just now. Over the next decade its GDP is expected to rise by an average of 6% a year, not least thanks to foreign direct investment. FDI has gone from $15 billion in 2002 to $37 billion in 2006 and $46 billion in 2012.

Many goods and services that used to be scarce, including telephones, are now widely available. Africa has three mobile phones for every four people, the same as India. By 2017 nearly 30% of households are expected to have a television set, an almost fivefold increase over ten years. Nigeria produces more movies than America does. Film-makers, novelists, designers, musicians and artists thrive in a new climate of hope. Opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of Africans think this year will be better than last, double the European rate.

Indeed, while all eyes are (nonetheless justifiably) on China and India, Africa has clearly become another rising force in the global economy, especially as its population is far younger and faster-growing than most parts of the world (which, while currently problematic in light of strained resources, might bode well for the long-term if its potential is harnessed).

Of course, Africa is not a monolithic place by any stretch: on every level, from politics to culture, it is the most diverse geographic area on the planet, by some estimates more than the rest of the world combined. As such, it is not surprising that different countries or regions on the continent are going in varying directions, in equally varying degrees. But the overall trend seems encouraging, if the following maps are any indication:

Africa Rising

Africa Politics

In recognition of how many readers may be skeptical of such a rosy few of Africa’s prospects, The Economist had set out to verify these data with a physical tour of the continent, perhaps the longest ever undertaken by a journalist (at least by my recollection).

Inevitably, Africa’s rise is being hyped. Boosters proclaim an “African century” and talk of “the China of tomorrow” or “a new India”. Sceptics retort that Africa has seen false dawns before. They fear that foreign investors will exploit locals and that the continent will be “not lifted but looted”. They also worry that many officials are corrupt, and that those who are straight often lack expertise, putting them at a disadvantage in negotiations with investors.

So who is right? To find out, your correspondent traveled overland across the continent from Dakar to Cape Town (see map), taking in regional centres such as Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg as well as plenty of bush and desert. Each part of the trip focused on one of the big themes with which the continent is grappling—political violence, governance, economic development—as outlined in the articles that follow.

The journey covered some 15,800 miles (25,400km) on rivers, railways and roads, almost all of them paved and open for business. Not once was your correspondent asked for a bribe along the way, though a few drivers may have given small gratuities to policemen. The trip took 112 days, and on all but nine of them e-mail by smartphone was available. It was rarely dangerous or difficult. Borders were easily crossed and visas could be had for a few dollars on the spot or within a day in the nearest capital. By contrast, in 2001, when Paul Theroux researched his epic travel book, “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town”, he was shot at, forced into detours and subjected to endless discomforts.

Doubtless, I will be keeping track of the coming articles based on this continental tour. I strongly welcome a more nuanced and firsthand account of Africa beyond the usual stereotypes of decay, underdevelopment, and misery. While we should not make light of the many humanitarian issues that still bedevil that region (among many others), nor get carried away into thinking that prosperity is destiny, it is vital to see that progress is possible and Africa is more than just its negative stereotypes.

Map: Gay Rights Around The World

Gay rights have come a long way globally: it was only a little over fifty years ago that many developed countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the U.K., still had laws criminalizing homosexual acts (even if they were de facto overlooked). Sadly, humanity still has a long way to go, as shown in the following map from The Economist.

Gay Rights Around the World

I recommend reading the article from which I pulled this map, as it does a good job exploring the current state of gays rights around the world, and why anti-gay sentiments and laws remain so stubbornly prevalent in some parts of the world. As expected, the factors are multidimensional and complex:

An enemy within can be handy for all sorts of leaders, and often more or less any old enemy will do. Some leaders’ anti-gay language has a conspiratorial tone that feels borrowed from the anti-Semitic diatribes of another time: gay people are portrayed as in thrall to alien values and particularly dangerous to children. Recent developments in the West also create exotic targets against which divisive leaders can define themselves without taking on any particularly powerful enemy at home. Nigeria’s law would surely not have taken its current form had gay marriage not made such remarkable advances in Europe and America.

None of this would work if there were not deep wells of homophobia to draw on. Over 95 percent of Ugandans and Nigerians disapprove of homosexuality. Four-fifths of Russians say that they have no gay acquaintances (though many may be wrong to say so). Such numbers say little about the intensity of anti-gay feeling in each country. They are certainly not evidence of a clamour for legislative attacks on homosexuals; activists often point out that gay people in places like Nigeria were able to lead relatively untroubled, if intensely private, lives before they became political targets. But the feelings they represent offer an opportunity for politicians seeking a quick populist win.

Some argue that the colonial provenance of anti-gay laws, in Africa and elsewhere, shows that these feelings have little genuine cultural basis. Imperial British authorities were certainly not slow to impose such laws on the lands they occupied, and they were often imported directly from home; in several former British colonies such provisions are numbered 377 in the legal code, indicating their common source.

Such sentiments seem comparable to the historic basis of antisemitism in Europe: Jews were a convenient and sufficiently alien enemy on which to unload all sorts of blame and societal frustration. Pogroms targeting Jews (and other “foreign” populations like Romanies) were often directly instigated or facilitated by expedient political leaders seeking to vent public discontent towards another source. But as with antisemitism, there is more to anti-gay attitudes than opportunism mixed ignorance:

A more contemporary and pernicious Western influence is that of conservative American evangelists who export their anti-gay message to places where it may meet more receptive ears, along with money that makes it all the more attractive. In Uganda’s case, they appear directly to have influenced the drafting of legislation.

Whether domestic or imported, religion matters. A survey of 39 countries by the Pew Research Centre last year found a strong correlation between a country’s tolerance for homosexuality and its religiosity. African and Middle Eastern nations are the least tolerant; in several Muslim countries homosexuality is a capital crime. Russia, a relatively godless place, is an exception to the rule.

So, increasingly, is America, though in the opposite direction; it is more tolerant than its levels of religious belief would predict. The greatest exception along those lines is Brazil, where attitudes are broadly tolerant and, as in Argentina and parts of Mexico, gay marriage is now legal. Homophobic violence, though, remains a problem.

Thankfully, The Economist’s assessment ends on an encouraging note, one that I agree with:

In the end gay people in the developing world will probably win their rights as they did in the West. Civil-society organisations, enlightened political and judicial leadership, and the advance of the liberal idea that the state has no business regulating the harmless activities of adults will all play a role. Most powerful, though, is likely to be people’s discovery that they have perfectly decent gay friends, neighbours, even relatives. The most pernicious thing about institutionalised homophobia and legal repression is that they make this realisation so hard. Once the wall begins to crack, though, it can quickly come tumbling down.

It will no doubt take a lot of time, but I would like to think that like so many other human rights scourges, homophobia will come to an inevitable end, or at least be greatly minimized so as not to retain the broad support and acceptance that it does in many parts of the world. What are your thoughts?

A Real-Time Map of Births and Deaths

The Atlantic has highlighted an interesting map that simulates the world’s recorded births and deaths in real time. Developed by Brad Lyon, a mathematician and software developer, and designer Bill Snebold, it uses the same d3 javascript library developed by Michael Bostock, a graphics editors at the New York Times.

The map interface shows where the births and deaths appear around the world, drawing on data from the CIA World Factbook, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and other sources. Here is an example of what it looks like:

You can find a larger version working here, as well as a nifty Chrome extension (which I have downloaded and am currently captivated by). You can learn more about how it was put together at Lyon’s blog post.

It is amazing, not to mention sobering, to see how many human lives come and go so quickly at a any given time. Even within the few minutes that I write this post, several hundred humans all over the planet have expired — who knows how and why? — while hundreds more are entering the world, their future and personal development still uncertain.

To me, these individuals are just cold, hard data; but they were in fact flesh-and-blood beings with names, identities, emotions, fears, aspirations, and every other characteristic I and my personal loved ones displayed. This map really puts into perspective just how big the world is, and how many billions of stories are playing out, ending, or just beginning, simultaneously across the world.

It is also fascinating to consider how far we have come in terms of data collection. It is easy to take for granted that humans have only recently had the means to both gather and display so much detailed information regarding just about quantitative factor.

Congolese Gynecologist Wins Sakharov Prize

According to NPR, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in recognition of his work treating thousands of rape victims in his country.

I admit to having never heard of this amazing man prior to seeing this reported in Wikipedia’s news page today. Of course, that is not surprising given the humility that is often characteristic of these unsung heroes (not to mention the woeful lack of attention to the causes they serve).

As The New York Times reports:

Dr. Mukwege is known for his work in one of the most traumatized places in the world. In the hills above Bukavu, where for years there was little electricity or anesthetic, Dr. Mukwege has performed surgery on countless women, some a few steps away from death, who have reached his hospital.

At the same time, he has campaigned relentlessly to shine a spotlight on the plight of Congolese women, even after an assassination attempt two years ago.

“It’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” Dr. Mukwege said in an interview last year. “It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

A winner of over a dozen other humanitarian awards, and long considered a potential candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, the 69-year-old Dr. Mukwege has dedicated his entire life to delivering these desperately needed services. The third of nine children, he pursued medicine in a desire to heal the many people that his minister father would pray for, working at first in a local rural hospital.

During his time there, he witnessed many women endure painful and often fatal complications from childbirth, due largely to the lack of qualified specialists. This inspired him to pursue the study of gynecology in France, which would come to be applied for another purpose: treating the horrific consequences of gang-rape that has been rampant in many parts of war-torn Congo for decades.

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

That in itself is a valuable aim, but hopefully this prize will also bring attention to Panzi Hospital’s need for donations: initially built for 120 beds, it as now squeezed in 350, out of which more than half are devoted to survivors of sexual violence. With an average of 410 patients per month, the hospital is currently running at maximum capacity and lacks staff, supplies, and resources.

While Dr. Mukwege’s $63,600 prize money will go a long way, we should consider donating to the Panzi Foundation and the good work it has done to help restore thousands of lives — and hopefully many more that are needed until this scourge of violence  and terror is finally done with.

The doctor collects his well-deserved prize.

 

 

The Most Popular Cities in the World to Work

In an increasingly globalized world, people have no shortage of options when it comes to choosing their place of work or business. Advances in telecommunications technology, airline travel, and international relations make it easier than ever to reside in tens of thousands of cities of your choosing.

But with literally a whole world to choose from, it can be overwhelming trying to make up your mind. Thankfully, the record number of expats across the world has spurred consultancies and other institutions to uncover the best place in which to unlock all that global talent.

CityLab cites a recent study conducted jointly by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and The Network, a recruiting firm, which asked respondents what five cities they would consider living in. Over 203,000 people across 189 countries replied, and the following chart represents their consensus:

Before assessing the results further, it is important to take into account the following caveat:

These results should, however, be taken in the context of the global distribution of survey respondents. Roughly half of respondents are currently located in Europe, which may help explain the relatively high share of those selecting European cities for an international move. This compares to the just 10 percent of respondents from Asia. But an even smaller share —about nine percent—are currently located in the U.S., and just under two percent are from Canada. Those low percentages indicate that the countries’ popularity as work destinations is less skewed by relative locals willing to hop over borders, and more by their global attractiveness to international talent.

It’s also worth pointing out that the survey is skewed towards top talent and does not reflect the preferred destinations of the world’s populations broadly. Nearly one in four (23 percent) of respondents had master’s degree or postgraduate qualifications; 36 percent had bachelor’s degrees; and just 10 percent of respondents replied “none” or “other” when queried about their educational attainment.

All that said, perhaps it unsurprising that the world’s leading economic and financial hub, London, took the top place, followed by its equally weighty rivals of New York City and Paris. Most of the remaining top ten are made up of medium-sized cities best known for their quality of life rather than their business opportunities – only Singapore tends to rank as a powerful commercial center.

Indeed, the majority of the top thirty are comprised of cities that strike that vital balance of economic growth, sociopolitical stability, and cultural richness that most expats seek. As with any domestic career, most workers want to enjoy a health work-life balance made easier by good infrastructure, lots of recreational and leisure opportunities, and the like.

The study also revealed a lot of other interesting trends and motivations regarding the world’s increasingly globalized labor force. For example, while nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed a willingness to move abroad for work, this varied widely depending on where they currently lived and worked:

Workers from the U.S., U.K., Denmark, Germany, and Ireland, as well as Latvia and Russia, were among the least likely to move. But workers from the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jamaica, and surprisingly the advanced nations of France and the Netherlands were among the nations with the highest share of residents ready to move. The survey results don’t indicate why the latter two countries had such high percentages of pro-moving respondents, but it may be because highly-educated French and Dutch residents are likely to be attracted to global powerhouses like London and New York, which provide more opportunities for top talent.

Willingness to move abroad for work, however, is not always a good sign. In countries like Pakistan, the report found that 97 percent of residents said they would be willing to go abroad for work—in this case, an indication of just how many people are interested in escaping that nation’s troubled economy and political instability.

There are a lot of other factors at play in these trends, including sociocultural attitudes (many countries have a long and established history of emigration and travel, or have significant diaspora communities that make settling and working abroad easier). It is also no coincidence that many of the top cities chosen by workers (as well as the countries in which they are based) tend to be fairly cosmopolitan and multicultural places.

Of course, where one decides to work and live also comes down to personal preference, forces beyond one’s control notwithstanding. That said, where would you live and work if you could choose?

Graph: Most Common Occupation of World Political Leaders

In the United States, law and political administration are deeply intertwined: most politicians, at least at the national level, are lawyers. Many others are career politicians, spending most or all of their professional lives climbing the ranks of civil service; still others are both.

But how does this play out in the global stage? Is the predominance of legal and public service experience among national leaders uniquely American? Does it vary by sociopolitical culture or history? The following daily chart from The Economist sheds some light on this:

Note that this chart only looks at executive positions — presidents and prime ministers. I am curious as to how national legislatures pan out in this regard (I would imagine the picture would be similar, since most political leaders tend to emerge among national representatives). I also wonder how sub-national or local leaders differ from national ones; for example, the U.S. has a lot more ethnic, religious, and occupational diversity among its mayors, state legislatures, and governors when compared to national bodies.

In any case, perhaps it is unsurprising that those with a background in civil service — albeit not exclusively so, since there is often overlap with other careers — make up most national leaders. Some degree of experience in public affairs, whether administrative or legal, is generally expected among those wishing to govern at a higher level. For a similar reason, a knowledge of a nation’s governing laws would be a sensible thing to have as well, whether you are making laws (like legislative members), executing them (executive leaders) or operating in them (everyone, in theory).

The fact that civil service is the overwhelming background of Danish, South Korean, Japanese, and Swiss political leaders is not too surprising either. In all those nations, the state plays a major role in managing public and economic affairs, particularly its bureaucrats (those stereotypically faceless technocrats that execute the day-to-day affairs of various ministries, departments, etc). Indeed, it is no coincidence that these nations tend to have strong values of collectivism and meritocracy, both of which, in theory, underpin good civil service.

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to get into the rest of the results (namely the Netherlands’ uniquely high preponderance of professors, or the prevalence of lawyers among Spain’s national leadership roles). The Economist does provide an interesting tidbit on the matter:

According to a paper by Mark Hallerberg of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, and Joachim Wehner of the London School of Economics and Political Science, policymakers with “technical competence” are more likely to hold office during a crisis. The authors found that a banking crisis increases the probability of having an economist as prime minister; a professor is more likely to hold the position during stockmarket crashes or inflation crises. Italy’s Mario Monti and Greece’s Lucas Papademos are recent examples. Unfortunately, voters seem inclined to get rid of them at the earliest opportunity.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts, observations, and speculations.

Chart: World’s Biggest Economies, Past and Present

With well over one billion denizens each, China and India make up a huge proportion of the world’s population and, subsequently, its economic potential. But if you think they are large now, consider that for much human history, the area constituting these modern nation states made up an overwhelming percentage of the human race and its economic activity.

Indeed, for many centuries, China alone accounted for one out of every three humans on Earth (with what is now India estimated to have concurrently accounted for another third). Considering that most readers of this blog (as far as I have gleaned) have, like me, been steeped in a Eurocentric telling of world history, it may be strange to imagine that the bulk of human activity and experience was concentrated in these two regions.

A recent chart from The Economist drives this point home by showing the relative sizes of these two behemoths (among other contenders) over the last two thousand years.

Note that Italy and Turkey were, during their peaks, the centers of the Roman and Ottoman empires, respectively. Also, I imagine the U.K.’s proportion would be larger if the colonial empire beyond its modern borders were to be factored in (indeed, all of India and then some would technically be included). Britain’s proportion is pretty impressive given its small geographic and demographic size relative to other rivals — a testament to the speed and intensity of the Industrial Revolution.

Similarly, America’s rapid rise between the late 19th century and turn of the 20th century reflects its own mastery of industry (albeit at great human and environmental cost, like much economic growth at that time). The fact that the U.S. and Soviet Union dominated the post-World War II global economic testifies as much to the sheer devastation wrought on the rest of the world (especially the former great powers) as to their rise as superpowers (Russia’s proportion is particularly impressive given the horrific scale of human and material loss).

But now, it appears China and India will once again reclaim the mantle of being the world’s major centers of economic activity — which is to be expected, given their sheer size and, in the latter’s case, continuing fast population growth. By some measures, China has already overtaken the U.S., although this is disputed.

Still, it seems inevitable that these two giants — which together make up almost 40 percent of the world’s population of 7.1 billion — will take center-stage in the global economy, perhaps even following in America’s footsteps as cultural and ideological powers (thus far a position that the U.S. is likely to enjoy continued dominance for years to come, whatever its relative economic status).

Of course, with other sizable countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, and more also rising to relative prominence, the world may become more multipolar than anything. Interesting times ahead. What do you think?

Africa’s True Size

Last year, I wrote about the many different map projections that exist, and how each distorts spatial and geographic features in one way or another. I briefly touched on how Africa is particularly understated in size, a fact that other sources have noticed as well, such as The Economist, which provided this very telling map:

Africa's True Size

For a more detailed and comprehensive picture, here is another (and much larger) infographic courtesy of io9 (click to enlarge):

 

This is also relevant to the growing concerns about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has led to much of the continent being a no-go zone for visitors, airlines, and businesses — despite the fact that, as an NPR piece points out, much of Africa is far and away from the main infection zone.

The Ebola outbreak is centered in four countries in a relatively small part of West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. There has also been one reported case in Senegal and a small, unrelated outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The distance from the heart of the outbreak to Nairobi, Kenya — where Korean Air canceled all flights on Aug. 14, citing fears over Ebola — is roughly 3,300 miles. That’s about the distance from Orlando, Fla., to Juneau, Alaska. So, geographically speaking, canceling a trip to Kenya is like canceling a trip to Disney World because of an Ebola outbreak in Alaska.

In fact, Africa is so large that many cities in Europe are actually closer to the Ebola outbreak than are cities in eastern and southern Africa. Johannesburg is more than 3,400 miles away — farther than both Paris and London.

Of course, Africa is hardly the only part of the world to be erroneously portrayed; as I discussed at length in my aforementioned post, every map projection thus far conceived exaggerates or underestimates one or all spatial dimensions. It is fascinating to see how much different the world is from the maps we grew up with and took for granted as fully accurate.

But it is also disheartening to see how such misconceptions, especially as they pertain to marginalized parts of the world, can reaffirm or worsen biases — e.g. Africa is a monolithically unsafe place, despite its incredible geographic, ethnic, and sociopolitical diversity.

Note, none of this is not intended to call into question the validity or usefulness of maps as a whole, since different projections serve different purposes, and must necessarily supersede other concerns. This is just an important caveat to keep in mind when analyzing any map, something many cartographers also tend to advise.

Chart: The Best Places to Be Born

In 1988, The Economist compiled a ranking of 50 countries according to which would be the best place to be born (or put another way, which would be the best to settle and start a family). This was determined on the basis of 11 weighted sociopolitical and economic criteria, ranging from the quantifiable (such as GDP growth) to the subjective (cultural richness). The results can be seen below.

The United States tops the list, followed by France, West Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan. The Soviet Union managed a respectable 21st place, with communist Poland and Hungary not that far behind. The Philippines, India, and Mexico also ranked relatively higher than one would expect from developing countries. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, and Zimbabwe rank the lowest.

Anyway, in 2013, The Economist revisited this “where-to-be-born” index, which basically measures overall quality-of-life both presently and in the foreseeable future. As before, there are 11 indicators involved, including the results of life-satisfaction surveys, public trust, crime, and even geography (environment and natural beauty can go a long way towards leisure and comfort).

So over 25 years later, here are the world’s best places to be born:

The United States is now in 16th place along with former third-place winner Germany; France falls to 26, Italy to 21, Japan to 25, and Canada to a still-respectable 9. In their place are mostly small, northern European countries, as well as Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand. Notice how Saudi Arabia and Iran have improved, while poor Nigeria remains among the bottom five (indeed, it is dead last, although Iraq and Zimbabwe, whose fortunes have each only gotten worse over the years were not measured this time).

Granted, a direct comparison between these two charts can’t say much, since The Economist measured far more countries, and claims to have been much more rigorous in its metrics, the second time around. Moreover, the inclusion of several subjective factors leaves much in dispute; for example, even people in otherwise prosperous places (e.g. the French) often report a low rate of life satisfaction regardless. Needless to say, individuals will weigh certain factors differently depending on their personal or cultural preference: environment may not matter as much to some as, say, public trust, and visa versa.

Of course, any effort to determine where is the best place to live or start of family is going to be arguable. It touches on a macro version of what makes for a good life. Clearly, freedom from violence, starvation, poverty, and the like are nearly universally-agreed upon. But what do you think of these results? Where would you consider to be the best place in the world to live?