What’s Good About Being Good

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To respond to challenges in our globalized world, countries should compete less and collaborate more. The Good Country Index (GCI), a recently introduced ranking that measures how each nation on earth is contributing to the common good, put it like this: countries should try to be ‘gooder.’ In an interview with BRICS Business Magazine, Simon Anholt, the author of the GCI and a renowned international policy advisor, explains why he wants to live in a good country and wishes that everybody else did too.

First, let’s talk about what the Good Country Index is all about. Why do you believe the world needs another index?

There was a 2.5-3-year period of data collection leading up to the launch of the Good Country Index, during which my colleagues and I identified 35 reliable global datasets which measured different aspects of what each country contributes or takes away from the global commons. The majority of these datasets are collected by UN agencies, as it is really the major body for collecting data on countries.

I had certain basic criteria when I was looking for datasets. First of all, they had to be reputable; they had to be generally acceptable to most people. And on the whole, the UN data is, because all of the countries in the Index are UN members and they have an influence, obviously, over the way the UN collects data and measures national performance. So the data is very much the property of the UN members.

The datasets also needed to coincide in one particular year.

One of the things that, I think, a lot of casual observers of the GCI have failed to understand is that this ranking is not some kind of attempt to measure the historic contribution of countries to the rest of the world, but it takes a snapshot in time. And the snapshot is in 2010.

Why 2010?

Because that was the last point at which all of these 35 datasets were last collected. They are all collected at very different intervals. Some of them, like internet freedom, are collected every 20 minutes. Others, like the signing of UN treaties, tend to be updated only every time there is a new treaty, which may be 10 years. So 2010 was our target year, and the majority of the datasets were collected in or around this point.

The other requirement we had for the data was it should, obviously, cover all countries. That proved to be impossible, because, depending on whose definition of ‘country’ you use, there are anywhere between 196 and 205 countries. And a large number of those countries simply do not collect reliable data that is acceptable to UN data standards. Or, in some cases, the UN does not collect data on them, because it does not recognise them as a sovereign territory.

So we ended up with a list of 125 countries and 75 or so that we had to leave out. It is important to stress: we left them out not because I do not recognise them as sovereign territories or any nonsense like that; we did so just because there was not enough data to be able to give them a fair ranking.

So, some things prove quite controversial like, for example, the fact that Taiwan is not included. And a large number of Taiwanese people wrote to me very angrily saying, “Oh, you don’t recognise Taiwan as a separate country.” No, it is just that I do not have any data on Taiwan. So, the people who collect the data, perhaps, don’t recognise Taiwan as a separate entity. I can only deal with the countries who have got the data.

Anyway, we have those 35 datasets and, as far as possible, they measure each country’s external impact as opposed to its domestic performance. There are five in each category. The average ranking of the five in each category gives a category ranking. On the www.goodcountry.org website it is possible to follow the links and get back to the original datasets, which are all online. And so anybody who wants to inspect the original data and find out exactly how each country performs and how it fits into the ranking can easily do so.

When looking at the GCI, it is striking that the top is wholly occupied by small countries. Does it mean in general that the smaller the country, the ‘gooder’ it is?

Actually the size of the country should not be significant, because most of the data in the index is expressed in proportion to gross domestic product, the size of the country’s economy. And this does not or should not favour small countries. What it does do is prevent countries with very large economies being unfairly favoured. But I also do not think it is true that the small countries dominate or necessarily have an advantage.

But isn’t it natural that a small country has to look outward, or try to be attractive to people outside, to bring itself up in the ranking? And, conversely, wouldn’t large countries like Russia or China, that are deep at the bottom, not care much about what people on the outside think of them? The point being: isn’t it natural for them to be more concentrated on their domestic affairs?

I think you make a very good point. There is no question that small countries have to take advantage of the opportunities offered by globalisation in a way that big countries do not necessarily need to. You know, if you are Ireland or Finland, then clearly engagements with other countries – trade engagements particularly – are essential.

You are also right that bigger countries are to some degree inherently unstable, and they do spend quite a lot of their time and effort just focusing on trying to manage their own enormous populations and their huge land areas. I think all that is true, and it points to one of the factors that I wanted to raise: that a lot of these big countries, understandably, do end up very selfish in their behaviour.

China is perhaps the best example. It is a country that is understandably very, very occupied with trying to feed, and look after, and manage its own enormous population. And I think many people’s normal reaction to that would be, “So, it is not fair to expect them to be feeling responsibility for the rest of humanity.” But this is precisely my argument and is precisely my provocation: I do not think that there are any longer any excuses for ignoring the rest of humanity. And particularly, if you are a large, powerful country, you have an obligation to do so.

Now, the GCI is not very effective at measuring this very accurately, because it tends to measure transactions. But the fact of the matter is that it is perfectly possible for a big country to look after its own population, manage its own affairs and, at the same time, remember its obligations to the international community.

I think part of the problem is that many people assume that the GCI is somehow measuring financial contributions – aid, development and so forth – how much money these countries give to poorer countries. And that is a very narrow-minded, very old-fashioned view of the relationship between countries, one which I am trying to challenge. This is not about giving money to other countries. This is about participating in an active, positive, helpful, supportive way in the community of nations and trying not to do things too often that benefit your own population at the expense of others. And that is not necessarily about money. That is about foreign policy, cultural relations, trade, and environment. It is about many other things.

You recently said that like every other species has to change in order to survive, countries also have to change in order to be good countries. And that you, personally, would like to live in a ‘good country’ and wish that everyone else would like to as well. The question may sound strange, but what is the message of the GCI in this context?

Not a strange question at all. It is the most important question. The reason behind the Index is that I wanted to draw people’s attention to the fact that nations are not isolated and we live in the age of globalisation. This is no longer the 18th or the 19th century. Every single challenge that humanity faces today is a connected, shared challenge – as a result of globalisation. If you look at those challenges – whether it is climate change, human rights, poverty, inequality, war, terrorism, pandemics, human trafficking or narco-trafficking – there are 20 or 30 of these major international issues, and all of them are now beyond the ability of any single country to resolve.

If Mexico tries to fix drug trafficking and the organised crime which flourishes around this trade, for example, even if it succeeds, which it has not yet – within its own land, then it is just pushing the problem into another territory. And in one way or another, this is the state of the world that we live in today. So, clearly, if we are going to make progress against those challenges, some of which are threatening the survival of the species, then we are going to have to work out how to collaborate a bit more and compete a bit less.

The problem is that the nation is still the significant entity in the world today, because nations govern populations. And nations are still configured in the way that they were configured 200-300 years ago. They look inwards and they compete against each other. And so we have a problematic situation where nations need to collaborate much more than they currently do, and yet they are fixated on their own selfish, competitive needs. And that is the thing that must be changed.

So the GCI was part of an attempt to draw people’s attention to this question, of what countries contribute to the rest of the world, instead of just constantly thinking about what they contribute to their own citizens. And the thing that I am attempting to bring to people’s attention is what I call ‘the Dual Mandate’.

Think Globally, Act Locally

What is the ‘dual mandate’ about?

Governments today exist according to a traditional single mandate. They are responsible for their own population, and they are responsible for their own territory. If we are going to survive and progress as a species, we need to change the culture of governance so that all governments understand that they have a dual mandate in the age of globalisation: they are responsible for their own people and for every other human being on earth. They are responsible for their own territory and for the whole planet.

The question of global governance is, of course, a very relevant one to this whole discussion.
I have spent a lot of my time over the past 20 years looking at the existing instruments of global governance and, indeed, I have collaborated on many occasions with UN agencies and other international bodies. And I have come to the conclusion that that process is essential, it must continue, but ultimately new forms of global governance won’t provide the solution

Now, that may sound like a very tall order but in fact it is a perfectly practical proposition. And, far from making a government’s job more difficult, if it starts to consider the whole picture, the whole world and the whole of humanity that actually makes the job of domestic governance slightly better, easier, and more productive.


Because at the very basic level it means that you acquire the habit of collaborating with other nations, which can produce better results. And also, it is important to say, when I talk about the dual mandate, I am not saying that governments will have ever to treat foreign populations as having equal priority with their domestic population. That would be absurd. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the priority will, of course, be given to the domestic population and the domestic territory. The cultural change is more about remembering to consider the international dimension in all areas of policy discussion, so whenever a government is discussing even domestic policy, they need always to remember to consider the international implications of what they’re doing, because everything does have an international implication. In the same way we’ve learned over the last decades to avoid being accidentally racist or sexist in our conversations, so we now need to learn to avoid being accidentally nationalist.

So this is the change I am trying to bring about. More than anything else, it’s a change of perspective. In a way, we are already starting to do that. Climate change has already had a dramatic impact on the culture of governments, to the extent that even city governments today in many parts of the world, when they are having purely local, domestic discussions about energy, about city planning, about street lighting, about transport, they are considering the environmental and so also the global consequences of what they are doing.

So the climate change issue is starting to teach us all to think globally when we are acting locally. My argument is that we need to do much more than that. We have to think about the international peace and security implications, the international cultural implications, the international employment implications, the international prosperity implications. We need to think about the whole of humanity when we make decisions.

It looks like you are pushing an idea of global governance, but the whole thing might be wishful thinking. Countries have been trying to agree on matters such as global trade and on measures to ease financial turmoil or terrorism, but most of them have failed. The obvious explanation is that countries differ too much in their visions and their interests. So how and where can global governance be implemented practically?

The question of global governance is, of course, a very relevant one to this whole discussion. I have spent a lot of my time over the past 20 years looking at the existing instruments of global governance and, indeed, I have collaborated on many occasions with UN agencies and other international bodies. And I have come to the conclusion that that process is essential, it must continue, but ultimately new forms of global governance won’t provide the solution.

There are a lot of wonderful successes in the existing arrangements for global governance. But in the end, it is not enough, and change must come from below. And, as you rightly say, there are many, many situations and scenarios where the national interest between the parties involved is so different that this kind of top-down diplomatic negotiation fails. And it fails on a very regular basis.

Part of the problem is that many people assume that the GCI is somehow measuring financial contributions – aid, development and so forth – how much money these countries give to poorer countries. And that is a very narrow-minded, very old-fashioned view of the relationship between countries. This is not about giving money to other countries. This is about participating in an active, positive, helpful, supportive way in the community of nations

Now, the reason for the ‘good country’ approach is because my guess is that we have reached the stage in history where there are sufficient numbers of ordinary citizens spread about all over the world who are capable of understanding these issues and care about them. They themselves are prepared to push their own governments to be a little less selfish and to collaborate a bit more, because there are many people around the world who are becoming seriously worried about the global challenges. People who, according to the research, would be prepared to make some domestic sacrifices in a limited way if they were persuaded that this would give humanity a better chance.

The kinds of people who would be prepared to make that kind of sacrifice, there is a hard core of them, based on attitudinal research worldwide, which is about 10 percent of the world’s population. There are roughly 700 million people that you might call ‘naturally cosmopolitan’, who would declare that they care more about humanity than their own nation.

Isn’t 10 percent too small a proportion?

Yes, it may not be enough on its own to create dramatic change. But it is certainly enough to start getting a message across to their governments that they need to think twice about the old-fashioned, inward, self-serving model of governance; it’s enough to start the process of making much more significant numbers change their minds. It’s enough to be a catalyst.

The basic idea that I am introducing here is that politicians will not change any more as a result of the UN asking them, begging them, negotiating with them to change. In most cases, we have reached about as far as that top-down process will go. So it is therefore necessary to have a bottom-up process. If national governments won’t listen to the UN and won’t come to agreements in the General Assembly, who will they answer and listen to?

Of course, they listen to their own populations, if they are at all democratic. In fact, even if they are not democratic, they are very concerned about what their own populations think, because they depend on them. So the reason for the whole Good Country project is to try to create a loud message from populations to their own governments, saying, “We would like you to start behaving a little bit differently. We would like you to give a little bit more and compete a little bit less.” And that is what this is all about. I think that this is necessary. Otherwise, we have probably gone about as far as global governance can go.

The bottom-up mechanics may work smoothly, in theory at least, but only when it comes to the democratic world. What about countries like China, not to mention the notorious ‘Islamic State’? Do you really believe people living there can send their governments a message, and that the government will listen and change?

We have a saying in English: “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” And I think your implication is that unless this thing is going to work 100 percent, then there is no point in doing it. This is not my view at all.

Of course, you are absolutely right. Creating this kind of change is an infinitely greater challenge in a country like China, where the ability of citizens to express a strong view to their own government is significantly less than it is in an open, democratic system. But to be honest with you, if what you say is true, and this approach is – at least in principle – one that works fine in democratic countries, then I am very happy indeed, because democratic countries are the overwhelming majority of countries in the world today. And if we simply include the citizens in democratic countries, we have the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. And that is sufficient to produce change.

It may take a little longer, and it may take some substantial changes to bring China on board, of course. But does that mean one does not start? No, of course not.

One is trying to get a ground swell of cultural change going on here. And this is the way it happens: it is like a snowball. You start with the people who already want to change, which, as I said before, is about 10 percent of the world’s population. And that is relatively easy because they already want it. They provide a certain amount of bulk, and encouragement, and force, to encourage the next cohort, who are the people who would happily change if they understood the issue better. And so we go on.

China may well be last, but that is not a reason to give up on the attempt. You mentioned the ‘Islamic State’? Well, although this is a very serious turn of affairs, it is statistically rather insignificant. This is a relatively small number of people who have decided to turn themselves very aggressively against the will of the international community. But it’s pointless to hope that this relatively small organisation could suddenly have a eureka moment, wake up in the morning and say, “Oh, we’re doing the wrong thing. We should be trying to be a good country, not a bad country.” It’s probably not going to happen. But I am not worried about them in the context of this project for the immediate future.

You have said for the sake of being ‘good’, countries should collaborate more and compete less. But from a very general standpoint, that contradicts a human being’s basic mindset. Almost everybody believes that we must compete – otherwise there would be no growth, which is mandatory in our world.

I disagree with almost everything you’ve just said. First of all, I don’t think that it is in any sense fundamental to human nature to compete. This is a very – if you will forgive me saying so – out-of-date, Hobbesian view that each human being is somehow programmed to survive at the expense of everybody else. For the last 80 or 100 years, there has been an evolving body of knowledge in science, in psychology, in biology, that the vision of humanity as a selfish, self-interested, competing, psychopathic being is not an adequate explanation for the way that humanity works. And the idea that there are components of natural empathy which create societies is becoming a very powerful one in scientific understanding. We only have to look around to see that the empathic instincts of people are the dominant ones, while the competitive instincts are somewhat secondary.

But at the level of society, of our behaviour and habits, of course, you are absolutely right. We have been living in an age where the orthodoxy – the economic orthodoxy and consequently, to a large extent, the social and political orthodoxy – has been shaped around this, as we say in English, ‘dog-eat-dog’ approach to things. The reason why I am pursuing this project now is because I judge we have reached a point in history where large numbers of people are beginning to question that orthodoxy. The aggressive Anglo-Saxon economic model of ‘growth for the sake of growth’ is at last being widely challenged, as a result of the economic crisis. People all around the world are loudly beginning to ask whether financial prosperity really is the main goal in life. Nobody yet has any answers to that, but it is a question that is being asked. And in many, many ways, I think that orthodoxy is beginning to break down, because its unsuitability for the human species is becoming evident.

If one look at the 35 indicators of the GCI, there are only three of four of them which are really about money. Most of them are about non-financial behaviour. And that brings us to the other country, which is Kenya. In fact, Kenya is the only African country which comes into the top 30: it comes in at No. 26. And again, this illustrates the point that it is possible for a country to be – at least according to my measurements – a really significant contributor to humanity without having a large economy at all

So I think this is an interesting point in history where it might actually be possible, with a little encouragement from projects like mine, to help people to understand that a happy society, a happy global society, requires more than economic growth and competition. It requires collaboration. It requires coordination. It requires empathy. And we have got all of those things. We just have not been using them very much over the last 100 years, or 200 or 300 years. But I think we can, and I think we will.

Not About Money

There are definitely some countries that stand out in your Index. Could you talk about some of them in more detail, starting with No. 1, which is Ireland?

Well, one of the things that I found particularly nice about Ireland is the fact that this data comes from 2010. And 2010 was the lowest point of Ireland’s recent economic history, the year in which government debt was at its peak. I think it is really a beautiful story, that this country at the height of its own economic pain was able to remember its international obligations. And that is a lesson for everybody.

It also makes the point that this is not primarily about money. If you look at the 35 indicators, there are only three of four of them which are really about money. Most of them are about non-financial behaviour. And that brings me to the other country which I often single out for particular mention, which is Kenya.

In fact, Kenya is the only African country which comes into the top 30: it comes in at No. 26. And again, I think this illustrates the point that it is possible for a country to be – at least according to my measurements – a really significant contributor to humanity without having a large economy at all. And I personally find it reassuring.

Just a word about the overwhelming incidence of Western European countries in the top 20: a lot of people, particularly Americans, accuse me of European bias. Perhaps that was mainly because they were disappointed about the United States coming in at No. 21. And this is a cultural and educational issue: most Americans are brought up to believe that the United States is the greatest contributor to humanity in the history of the world, bar none. And that is the way they are taught history in the US. And it is deeply troubling to them to be told by somebody else, a European, that they are not the world’s greatest benefactor. If we were to measure it in absolute terms, possibly they would be the greatest benefactor, but they also do quite a lot of harm as well as doing quite a lot of good. Anyway, it is silly to quibble over individual positions, and 21 is still a very good ranking. Anybody who comes into the top 50 is, generally speaking, making more of a contribution than they are taking away.

As to Europe, I came to the conclusion that the reason why there are so many European and particularly EU member states in the top of the Index is because they really are the ‘goodest’ countries. And the reason that they are the ‘goodest’ countries is because they have the most practice in being good.

The EU is the greatest experiment in multilateralism in human history. This is just about the only case in history where a large number of free countries have, of their own free will, decided to give up part of their own national sovereignty for the collective good. They have basically pooled their resources, and countries in the EU have been doing this for sufficiently long that it has become an ingrained habit. It has become part of their culture. The Nordic countries even more so, because they have an even older habit of collaboration in their region. And so I think the reason why those countries are at the top is because it is very much a habit with them, to consider their country as part of a larger global system and to behave accordingly.

What about the BRICS countries?

The BRICS countries on the whole rank rather low. And that is in the nature of being an emerging economy. A BRICS country, almost by definition, is engaged in a very serious and very arduous struggle to build its economy, to build its global standing, to build, in many cases, its society and its polity as well.

And so, it is not in the least surprising that those countries tend to have been somewhat inward-looking. They are very focused on building their own nations. And I do not, in any sense, criticise them for doing that – as I say, I think it is perfectly understandable. So the last thing I am trying to do with this Index is to punish, or criticise, or chastise countries for being low down. I am simply pointing out the facts and raising the question.

As I said about China, the way it has been behaving up until now is completely understandable. There is nothing here that should surprise anybody. But having made this measurement and pointed out this aspect of China’s role in the world – and Russia’s, and Brazil’s, and India’s, and South Africa’s as well – that now raises questions.

Which questions?

What about the future? What is the next phase of those countries’ development going to be? Having now made substantial economic progress and, in some cases, social and political progress as well – it is now a moment when they could start thinking about slightly changing the direction and style of their development. So that they start giving regular thought to the shared resources that they are using, the planet that they share with every other country and the basically closed system that they are part of.

I seriously hope that they will be able to do that. And I seriously hope that the current or maybe the next generation of leaders in developing countries will start to take that responsibility very seriously indeed. It does not mean short-changing their own population. It does not mean doing their own job less well. It does not mean letting down their own people – quite the contrary. I think that the public mood, if one can speak in global terms about public mood – at the moment is that many politicians would find they would be significantly rewarded by their populations if they started playing a very principled, generous, sharing, open role in the international community, because that seems to be what people are increasingly demanding.

The Party that Does Exist

Why do you think the Good Country Party you have just announced is going to be helpful? Who do you expect to join?

I am hoping that people will want to join if they are interested in these issues, and learn more about them or, better still, share some ideas. It is free, and it is open to everybody on the planet. All you have to do is go to goodcountry.org and click on ‘I want to join’. And basically, the principle is that I never ask for anything – I am not going to ask for donations or signatures. All the Party is going to do is to give: to give whatever is necessary in order to support this growing community of internationally minded people. So I am hoping for large numbers. We have got an enormous number of people signed up already.

What are your plans for the Party and the roles of the members?

It probably sounds a little bit vague, but I deliberately have not set out any very concrete plans. And that is for two reasons. First of all, because this is not a political party in the sense that I set the policy and people who join have to follow that policy. I very much want to collect ideas from people around the world – like-minded people – about what they think of the key issues, and to listen to their suggestions. The idea is that it should become an exchange – if you like, ultimately a kind of Wikipedia – of shared solutions to global problems. And so for that reason, I have deliberately resisted setting out too many concrete plans and targets.

I want to see how it evolves. And at the moment, at the beginning, my only aim is to provide as much learning material, as much information about globalisation and the globalised world we live in as I possibly can. I’m very lucky because I have spent the last 15 years advising the governments of 53 countries on how they engage with the rest of the international community. So, over those years, I have learnt quite a lot about how the world works. But the majority of people joining the party have not had that opportunity. And so the first thing I need to do is, in the simplest, clearest and most enjoyable way, to help them understand how the world really works. And, frankly, to relieve them of some of the funny ideas they have about who controls the planet. I mean, a number of emails I get are from people telling me that this is all pointless because everybody knows the world is controlled by three corporations. They say things like that because they don’t know any better. And I think, if they had some sense of how chaotic most corporations and most governments really are and how disorganised the whole of humanity is, they would probably realise how unlikely these global conspiracies really are.

So the first stage is simply sharing and giving information. But what is next?

After that, there are an awful lot of ideas and projects and plans in the pipeline, mainly concerned with courageous and imaginative but basically practical policy recommendations. I hope we will start coming up with many more really interesting ideas and sharing them with governments and international organisations. This is very much about sharing ideas. The thing I do not want to do is to create yet another protest organisation. There are a lot of these single-issue NGOs whose approach is to try to embarrass or humiliate governments and thus to force them to change. This is very poor psychology and really doesn’t work at all. I think what we need to do is to start collaborating openly and helpfully with our own and other governments in order to try and assist them to behave in a different and more collaborative way. I believe in helping people to improve. I do not believe in trying to make their lives difficult.

Simon Anholt is independent policy advisor, author of the Nation Brands Index, Good Country Index, and winner of the 2009 Nobels Colloquia Prize for Leadership on Business and Economic Thinking.

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