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

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. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle