Asking what makes a country great is kind of like asking what makes a great cake: everyone has a different idea of which bits are the most important. Some people like the icing best, others go for the cream in the middle, more still prefer a nice crunchy crust.
The fact of the matter is that there is no one ‘best’ country, nor is there any one country that is objectively better organised in every way than everywhere else. One country could have a great environmental policy but falls down when it comes to civil rights issues. Another country might have a great political structure but has poor or expensive healthcare.
Of course, the little patriot in all of us will always find parts of our own country that we think is better than anywhere else, but if we are honest with ourselves we can usually see that our own bias has come into play. What I enjoy about a country is almost certainly going to be different than what somebody from South America, Asia or Australia is going to like. The idea of the ‘ideal’ country, ironically, changes from country to country.
With all that said, there is still room for some general agreement. It might not be possible to pick a country that is categorically ‘the best’, but certainly we are able to say when a country is doing a great job in at least one area. Nobody does everything perfectly, but the following countries (in no particular order) do at least one thing better than the rest.
1) The Kingdom of Bhutan: Gross National Happiness
In a world where where our lives and our countries’ very existence is defined more and more by terms like gross national product (GNP), gross domestic product (GDP), where the breaking news revolves around economic trends, international trade agreements and governmental spending, it is easy to forget that life is supposed to be about living, not just making and spending money.
Not so in the Kingdom of Bhutan, the tiny Asian nation wedged between India and China. Looking out from the southern slopes of the himalayas, all the way back in 1971 Bhutan gave up GDP as their (and almost everybody else’s) definitive measurement of progress. Instead, in a move that has come to make Bhutan famous around the world, they chose a new term to be their country’s measuring stick; Gross National Happiness. It’s a holistic model that measures a citizen’s mental happiness, spiritual and physical wellbeing as well as environmental factors.
In Bhutan, it’s not about what you produce as a collective whole, it’s how well and how happy you are as an individual person. Now if you go to Bhutan you can see happiness-inducing signs like “Life is a Journey” or “Let nature be your guide”. If you do decide to make the trip, however, you’d better bring your wallet; a visa to Bhutan will cost you upwards of $200… per day!
2) Portugal: Protecting their most Vulnerable
When people think of Portugal today, we imagine (or have been lucky enough to see with our own eyes) small fishing villages, a hot sun and a refreshing breeze, friendly locals, beautiful beaches, ancient historic churches and castles, great food and maybe even a glass of port. For Europeans, Portugal has long been a favourite holiday destination, not only for all of the reasons mentioned above, but because you can have all of those things without spending an arm and a leg.
It’s hard to imagine that just two decades ago Portugal was a much darker place. In the 80’s and 90’s, Portugal was in the midst of a drugs crisis. There were scores of cocaine and heroin addicts, turf wars between drug gangs, intimidation and murder on the streets. Worse still, the use of needles by heroin addicts led to a wave of HIV infection. Looking to other countries and seeing how they tackled drug issues, there seemed to be few options for Portugal to take. The one choice being championed the world over was the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, but that is what Portugal had been doing, and it wasn’t working. In fact, it had failed miserably. A radical re-think was needed.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of small quantities of all drugs meant for personal consumption. It was a stunning move, one that many people are only starting to take seriously today. Possession of small quantities of ‘soft’ drugs like marijuana became, in effect, legal, freeing up police and judicial time to deal with drug dealers and cartels. Being caught by police with cocaine or heroin led not to a prison sentence, but to a meeting with a medical panel who would decide what treatment would be best suited to help the person in question. Addicts were no longer imprisoned (as if prison could help them get clean). Instead, they were given real, serious medical help.
The results were as impressive as they were surprising. The number of drug addicts in Portugal plummeted. The HIV wave dissipated. Public spending was freed up for more important issues than imprisoning teenagers for smoking pot. Now, more than a decade on, the rest of the world is starting to take note of what the Portuguese have done. Their model has worked — they’ve protected their most vulnerable citizens, crushed their drug gangs and saved police time and money in the process. If only more places in the world could be so forward thinking.
3) Denmark: Basically the Best at Everything
I said earlier that there was no one best country, that the best we could say was that some countries do some things a bit better than everyone else. Well, denmark might just be the exception to that rule. U.S. ‘social democrat’ presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been name-dropping Denmark on a daily basis, and there is good reason. When it comes to a state being organised so as to work for the common person as opposed to the richest 1%, Denmark is the world’s poster child. It’s no wonder that Bernie Sanders can’t stop talking about the Danes; by any standards, Denmark is socialism done right.
Do you like free time? The Danes have the world’s shortest working week (33 hours a week on average, with an average wage of $US 46,000). If you hate poverty you’ll love Denmark, where the poverty rate is a tiny 0.6%. Denmark is often first in the annual World Happiness Report (sorry Bhutan — great effort though). Education is cheap, healthcare is relatively affordable, income levels are very high, new parents get 52 weeks of paid family leave, and what’s more, in 2014 Forbes ranked Denmark #1 globally for business. Not bad, Denmark. Not bad.
4) China: Tackling the Environmental Dragon
Certainly a controversial choice for a list of well-organised countries, China’s new environmental policy actually deserves a lot more credit than it has been receiving. There can be no question that China’s environmental concerns are grave. Take a look at the smog that descends on Beijing all too often. China is inundated with coal plants and massive industrial sites that pump millions of tonnes of waste into the atmosphere every year.
I myself spent two years living in Shanghai, where you could wake up to a clear sky just as often as you could a yellow, smelly one. I have had friends told by doctors that they have a layer of dirt in their lungs, only to be told “it’s okay — everyone who lives in Shanghai has this.” I’ve seen huge cities whose primary area of employment is coal mining, where the streets are lined with soot and dirt.
However, the fact of the matter is that China is well aware of the scale of their environmental issues. Over the past few years, they have instituted a wide array of far-reaching economic and environmental reforms.
They’ve closed vast numbers of their coal plants, and are closing more on a near-daily basis. They’ve built scores of hydroelectric dams. They’ve invested in solar and wind power on a massive scale. They’ve tightened up regulations when it comes to industrial waste. They’re building more and more trains, laying new tracks, they’re investing in more public transport, and pouring huge amounts of money into figuring out how to make their biggest cities less congested.
While they’re not there yet — in fact, they are still a long way off — their response to their environmental crisis has been nothing short of staggeringly impressive. Nay-sayers will claim that the Chinese are only tackling these problems because of how poorly they handled the environment in the past.
But so what? The important thing is what they are doing now, not the mistakes they made in the past. The fact of the matter is that if the rest of the planet took their environmental concerns as seriously as China, the world would soon be a far better place. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that they can keep up the good work.
5) Cuba: A Miracle of Medicine
This is another one for those who share the views of social-democrat Bernie Sanders. Socialist Cuba, a country that often divides opinion, has been doing a lot of things differently for a very long time now. While the country is held up as an example of the failings of socialism as often as it is depicted as a socialist success story, one aspect of Cuban life that nobody would take issue with is their excellent healthcare system.
Much like the story of Portugal’s historical drug issues, Cuba was a country whose healthcare system was once in serious disarray. Over the past 40 years, Cuba instituted a vast array of healthcare reforms. Now, with a huge emphasis on primary care tied closely to research and development, the Cuban healthcare system is on a par with almost anything the west has to offer, a feat made all the more impressive when the U.S. imposed trade embargo against Cuba is taken into account.
Today, with a life expectancy of 78 years (just a fraction lower than the life expectancy in the United States), the Cuban healthcare model has been deemed an outstanding success. What’s more, it’s free for all citizens.