Ireland tops new index of ‘good’ countries

With Ireland in first place, a new index has been created to measure the good that countries do for the rest of the world. Ben Whitford meets its founder, Simon Anholt, and finds out how it could encourage more altruistic and socially positive government policies

It’s official: we have more to thank the Irish for than just Guinness, Ulysses and soda bread. In fact, according to the newly published Good Country Index, the Emerald Isle does more good in the world, pound for pound, than any other nation.

The brainchild of British policy analyst Simon Anholt, the Good Country Index wraps together 35 different global datasets into a single statistical snapshot of national ‘goodness’ that factors in everything from environmental responsibility to levels of foreign humanitarian aid.

The focus is on the net good that countries do for the rest of the world, rather than solely for their own citizens, and results are adjusted for national wealth. That means that Ireland’s success says less about the country’s absolute contribution to the planet than about how effectively it organises its resources.

“Per dollar of GDP, Ireland was the country that did least harm to the global commons and contributed most,” Anholt tells Positive News.

The country did especially well in categories measuring social equality, health issues, culture and contributions to world order. Still, the index’s publication raised eyebrows in Ireland, where residents are struggling with an 11.8% unemployment rate, and where more than 750,000 people live below the poverty line.

“Ireland definitely isn’t the best country in the world,” wrote Irish journalist James Nolan.

“Regardless of what it’s giving to the good of humanity, it certainly isn’t giving all that much to its citizens.”

Anholt acknowledges that, judging by the hundreds of emails he’s received, some Irish people dismiss the Good Country Index’s findings. Nobody’s saying that Ireland is perfect, he says — but still, he insists, the data doesn’t lie.

“In the middle of a very serious recession, Ireland didn’t abandon its international obligations, and I think that’s something that the Irish can be very proud of,” Anholt says.

“A country’s attitude and good governance count for as much as economic strength when it comes to doing good in the world”

Of the 125 countries included in the index, other countries to score highly included New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries, as well as the UK, which came 7th overall, and topped the index’s research and technology category. The US, despite making substantial contributions to global welfare in absolute terms, fell to 21st place once the results were adjusted for GDP.

At the other end of the spectrum, Libya was ranked the country that contributed the least to the global community, alongside struggling nations such as Venezuela, Angola, Zimbabwe and Iraq.

It was disappointing to see so many rich, developed nations crowding the top of the list, even after adjusting for national wealth, Anholt says. Still, it wasn’t altogether surprising: countries emerging from conflict or social unrest obviously face bigger challenges than more stable, developed nations.

“A country that’s prosperous is invariably a well-run, stable country, and if you’re well-run and stable you’re much more likely to be thinking in a more responsible way about your place in the world,” Anholt says.

Still, there were some countries that bucked the trend. Kenya, for instance, came in 26th place, just one spot below Japan, thanks in part to its efforts to ensure regional peace and security.

That’s a sign that attitude and good governance count for as much as economic strength when it comes to doing good in the world, Anholt says.

“If we end up thinking that caring about the planet is the preserve of rich nations, then we’re really in trouble,” he adds.

Anholt hopes that the publication of the index will spur more people around the world to pressure their leaders to consider global wellbeing, as well as purely local factors, when making decisions.

“The answer to the world’s problems is not to be found in this index or any other index,” he says.

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Still, a groundswell of public support for more globally aware, socially responsible leadership would make it far easier for activists to convince governments to enact smart, ethical policies. “The launch of the index … is a large exercise in public diplomacy, to see if I can galvanise populations to push on one side while I and others push from the other,” he says.

Governments have already largely accepted the importance of protecting their national brand in order to boost foreign investment, tourism, and their country’s standing in the international community, Anholt says. Now it’s a question of joining the dots, and convincing policymakers that altruistic, globally conscious policies can serve as potent brand-building tools.

In coming weeks, Anholt says, he’ll try to leverage the buzz surrounding the Good Country Index’s launch to build a global grassroots campaign, and to give people new tools with which to lobby their political leaders for more socially positive policy making.

“It’s very ambitious — it’s nothing less than changing the parameters of how governments behave — but I think it’s doable,” he says. “I think it can achieve huge change, and that’s what I’m banking on.”