Sophie McBain picks up politics, business and international development stories from around the globe

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Why international rankings of countries are completely pointless

The UK is ranked 13 out of 132 countries in the new Social Progress Index, thanks to its excellent universities but comparatively high rates of obesity. But when will we realise that these lists are really meaningless?

The opening ceremony of the Olympics, celebrating the world's 13th best country. Photo: Getty.

New Zealand has topped the latest list as the best place to live in the world, according to a ranking system developed economists at Harvard Business School called the Social Progress Index. That’s not due to the country’s unspoiled landscapes, pristine ski slopes, indigenous penguin population and high Lord of the Rings memorabilia to human ratio – the Social Progress Index takes into account a range of factors, including individual freedom, national health and education, and access to basic human needs like food and shelter. 

Below New Zealand, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway make it to the top five, while the UK is the 13th best place to live, and the US comes in at 16. At the very  bottom of the list are Burundi, Central African Republic and Chad.

When you compare the UK with countries with a similar income level (like Belgium, Japan or France), we score relatively badly on a number of measures: our rates of maternal mortality and deaths from infectious diseases are comparatively high, we’re too fat, too many of us die of air pollution, and there’s too much crime, discrimination against minorities and religious intolerance. Suddenly our place at number 13 doesn’t seem so great – even if we have comparatively good universities, a lot of freedom of speech, low suicide rates and easy access to contraception.

The Social Progress Index is certainly comprehensive but as with any global index (although especially Monocle’s quality of life index) it ends up being more than a bit random. Iraq, for instance, comes in 118th out of 132 countries, because while it scores low for freedom and personal safety, it has comparatively good access to sanitation – but can you really weigh one variable up against each other so simply?

It’s not a simple trade-off: would you like swap improved NHS care for a higher chance of being a victim of violent crime? Or marginally better secondary education for higher levels of religious intolerance? How much faster and more effective would your broadband have to be to balance out the effect of a 0.5% increase in fatal road traffic accidents? The question, of course, is nonsensical.

The authors have done their best to pick out newsworthy trends – for instance, they suggest the “Arab Spring” countries of Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia all score extremely badly when it comes to “opportunity” – measured in terms of individual freedom, access to higher education and societal tolerance.  Which feels like quite an interesting pattern, except they’ve got their facts slightly wrong: neither Algeria nor Morocco is an Arab Spring country, they did not experience revolutions in 2011. Which all goes to show that while these broad-brush international comparisons feel like they ought to be illuminating, their findings are often far too general to be of real use.

New Zealand might top the list, but I wouldn’t recommend moving there on that basis alone. Nor is there is much the UK can do with the knowledge that it is the 13th best place in the world to be, according to a bunch of Harvard academics.

It might be helpful to be reminded that given how wealthy the UK is, we could do better at improving national health and becoming a fairer, more tolerant society, but we don’t need another global ranking for that. 

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