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.

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‘Walmart’s Worst Nightmare’ Is Expanding Massively

Eupraxsophy:

This is definitely a good company to keep an eye on, especially as it continues to expand across the west coast (and hopefully beyond). WinCo is employee owned and managed, and offers generous pension and healthcare benefits even to part-timers — all this while managing to offer lower costs to consumers than even infamously exploitative Walmart. Hopefully this model catches on. Read more about it on Forbes.

Originally posted on TIME:

WinCo Foods is pushing into one of the country’s hottest grocery store markets, Texas—and the competition is quaking in their boots.

View original 822 more words

Chart: Gender Equality Around the World

The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report determines disparities between men and women in areas like political empowerment, economic opportunity, health, and education. Scores are tallied between zero and one, with one signifying perfect equality (an impossible ranking thus far for even the most progressive countries, though thankfully no country ever ranks at zero). Here is a chart of some of the results courtesy of The Economist.

Out of 142 countries examined in 2014′s index, Iceland topped the list at 0.86, followed by the rest of the Scandinavian countries — Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden — taking the next four highest slots. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that these nations typically perform very well in just about every metric of human development, from poverty to social stability.

But plenty of developing countries have high gender equality as well; Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Rwanda each made it to the top ten despite being among the world’s poorest countries. This challenges the notion that economic and political development are the main factors bettering the lives of women (although such solutions certainly help of course).

Like most social and culture values, a lot of multidimensional influences are at work in determining the treatment and opportunity accorded towards women. Thankfully, many countries seem to be improving in this and other metrics of human development, but we still have a long way to go. What are your thoughts?

 

Giving to Charity Intelligently

There are so many causes worth supporting, and no shortage of charitable organizations to choose from to address them. But since money tends to be short and there are only so many groups to give to, it is important to know where you get the most bang for your buck.

If anyone needs help determining which charities they should support, check out CharityNavigator.com, which was founded to help improve the efficiency of charitable giving. To that end, it evaluates philanthropic organizations based on a range of criteria, such as financial efficiency, accountability, and transparency. It also provides a detailed profile on every nonprofit, including how much goes to overhead versus the cause, how much CEOs are paid, where donations come from, and the like.

Moreover, you can compare charities within particular fields (education, animal welfare, etc.), view a top ten list of the best (and worst) charities, see which organizations needs the most help (and which do not), and learn about the most recent trends and developments in the world of humanitarianism (for example, which organizations are involved in fighting Ebola in West Africa). You can even find vital tips on how to donate most effectively

Fortunately, my research suggests that Charity Navigator — which is also a nonprofit that could use some donations — is an independent and trustworthy source; crucially, it does not except donations or advertisement from any group it evaluates, and all of its own financials are public record and available on its website. Of course, you are free to leave any feedback regarding this or other charity watchers, so that we can all do a better job of doing good in the world.

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.

The Greatest Threat to the World?

There seems to be no shortage of candidates for greatest threat to the world (by which we usually mean humanity specifically) — climate change, world war, nuclear weapons, a pandemic, an asteroid, or maybe even a combination of these factors. As it turns out, however, where you live determines what you consider to be most dangerous to the rest of the world.

That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which asked 48,643 respondents in 44 countries what is the greatest danger to the global community (note, this took place before the breakout of Ebola but after events like the Syrian Civil War and the showdown between the West and Russia over Ukraine).

As Mic.com reports:

In the United States and Europe, income inequality came out on top. In the Middle East, religious and ethnic was considered the biggest threat. While Asia listed pollution and the environment, Latin America cited nuclear weapons, and Africa chose AIDS and other diseases.

Unsurprisingly, the concerns fell largely within geographic and regional boundaries. The United States and Europe are home to some of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, so it’s somewhat expected — if ironic — that they’re worried about income inequality. Asia is home to 17 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and, as of 2012, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 70% of the world’s AIDS cases.

In other words, all of us appear to have an exceptionally narrow view of the world: We see the biggest threats to our region as the biggest threats to everyone else, too.

Here is a visual representation of that data, also courtesy of Mic.com:

Moreover, the perception that religious and ethnic hatred poses the greatest threat to the world has seen the most growth over the past seven years, no doubt due to numerous high-profile sectarian conflicts across the planet.

Courtesy of The Atlantic is a color-coded map of the world that better shows how these great threats are geographically and culturally spread out:

A few other observations of the data from The Atlantic piece:

  • Other than Japan, the countries that saw nuclear weapons as their biggest danger included Russia (29 percent), Ukraine (36 percent), Brazil (28 percent), and Turkey (34 percent).
  •  The U.K.’s greatest concern was religious and ethnic hatred (39 percent), putting it in the same group as India (25 percent), Israel (30 percent), the Palestinian territories (40 percent), Lebanon (58 percent), and Malaysia (32 percent).
  • People in France were equally divided on what they consider the biggest threat, with 32 percent saying inequality and the same percentage saying religious and ethnic hatred.
  • Likewise in Mexico, nuclear weapons and pollution were tied as most menacing, at 26 percent.

It is also important to point out that in many cases, no single fear was dominant: in the U.S. for example, inequality edged over religious and ethnic hatred and nuclear weapons by only a few points. And in almost every region, anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of respondents expressed fear towards nuclear weapons (which I feel can be taken to mean war among states where the use of nukes is most likely). The survey observed that in many places, “there is no clear consensus” as to what constitutes the greatest danger to humanity, as this graph of all countries shows:

These results are very telling: as the earlier excerpt noted, you can learn a lot about a country’s circumstances based on what its people fear the most. Reading backwards from the results, it makes sense that what nations find the most threatening is what they have been most imperiled by presently or historically.

It is also interesting to note how societies, like individuals, view the world through their own experiential prism: because we are obviously most impacted and familiar with what immediately effects us, it makes sense that we would project those experiences beyond our vicinity. Just as our own individual beliefs — be they religious, political, social, etc. — are colored by personal life experiences, so too do entire nations often apply their most familiar concerns and struggles to the world at large.

Of course, this varies by country as well as by the respondents who represent said country; in many cases, participants are more likely come from higher educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus reflect their class views rather than that of their wider society. (Admittedly, I am not sure if that applies to this particular Pew survey, as the respondents were interviewed by phone or face-to-face, with no indication as to their background.)

For my part, I personally put the most weight behind climate change, especially as it can exacerbate a lot of existing issues over the long-term (clashes among ethnic/religious groups over strained resources, refugees fleeing crop failures and placing strain upon host countries, etc.). What are your thoughts and opinions regarding the world’s greatest threat?

Chart: Global Wealth Distribution

Since I have been on a bit of an infographic kick lately, here is yet another interesting chart courtesy of The Economist, which measures an issue dear to my heart: wealth inequality. The contrasts inherent in it are quite sobering:

To recap, there are around 35 million millionaires in the world, constituting just 0.7 percent of the adult population — yet together, they hold 44 percent of the world’s total wealth of $262 trillion (up from $117 trillion in 2000). This is an increasingly common arrangement in most parts of the world, so it is little surprise that the same plays out on the international stage, especially as globalization proliferates the systems and trends that contribute to this top-heavy concentration of wealth.

Here are some additional details from the article:

Today 94.5% of the world’s household wealth is held by 20% of the adult population, according to new data from Credit Suisse. Wealth is so unevenly distributed, that you need just $3,650 (less debts) to count yourself among the richest half of the world’s population. A mere $77,000 brings you among the wealthiest 10%. And just $798,000 puts you into the ranks of the 1%—within the reach of many white-collar urban professionals in the West. Hence, more than 35m people carry such a plump purse. Among the three billion adults at the bottom with less than $10,000 in wealth, 90% reside in developing countries. Yet 15% of millionaires live in developing countries too.

Such a stark contrast in fortunes, especially with so much of the world remaining poor despite all the growth in wealth, does not bode well for the economic and sociopolitical stability of this planet (much less of many individual nations, where circumstances are even more dire). What are your thoughts and reactions?

World’s Biggest Economies — GPD Per Capita

In a previous post, we looked at the world’s largest economies during the past 2,000 years. To recap, China and India both overwhelmingly dominated the global economy for much of this period, being superseded only 100 years ago (only to begin rising once more at the turn of the 21st century).

This time around, we will see the world’s top three richest economies during the same period, but based on GDP per capita (e.g. adjusted by population). As before, The Economist is the source, and the results are pretty interesting.

Since I am busy today, I will not have the time to weigh in on these results as before — I will leave that to you all!

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.