The World's Happiest (And Saddest) Countries, 2013
Published on: 2013-12-21
Are you better off than you were five years ago? Is the world? The Legatum Institute seeks answers with its 2013 Prosperity Index.
Everywhere you look in this world there are signs of instability, destruction, hopelessness. Syria is in civil war. Libya is in chaos. Egypt remains unsettled after its military coup. Iran is weeks away from weapons-grade uranium. Iraq is racked by chronic sectarian violence. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is cracking down on gay rights. Mozambique is slumping back into civil war. Kenya is reeling from the Nairobi terrorist massacre. China’s air pollution has become debilitating.
And in the United States faith in governance is at an all-time low. The fiscal cliff, the sequester, high unemployment, the federal shutdown, the embarrassing roll out of Obamacare. Not only are Americans disgusted with Washington, our allies are, too, with scores of countries livid at revelations of extensive NSA spying. You know it’s bad when Dick Cheney emerged last weekend to declare, “I think our friends no longer count on us, no longer trust us, and our adversaries don’t fear us.” But what do you expect when NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman represents America’s strongest diplomatic tie with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un?
Does this sound like a happy, prosperous world?
And yet, says the London-based Legatum Institute, “despite the tumultuous events of the past five years, global prosperity is actually still on the rise.”
What a relief. So how do they know? The Legatum Institute is a think tank dedicated to figuring out how to make the world a better place. Naturally, before you can fix something you’ve got to analyze and quantify it. For five years now Legatum has attempted to do just that with something it calls the Prosperity Index. To build the index Legatum’s elves incorporate “a mixture of traditional economic indicators alongside measurements of well-being and life satisfaction.” The result is a list of 142 countries, covering 96% of world population and 99% of global GDP, ranked from most to least prosperous — the Happiest and Saddest Countries in the world. (Check it out for yourself on Legatum’s interactive website.)
So who’s the happiest? As has been the case the past five years, that distinction goes to countries that enjoy peace, freedom, good healthcare, quality education, a functioning political system and plenty of opportunity: Norway, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand.
The saddest, least prosperous? War-ravaged countries under the thumb of greedy despots and theocrats, where freedom of expression is limited, education nonexistent, violence the norm: Chad, Congo, Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Yemen.
There are some notable changes in the rankings this year. The United States, though ranked 11th overall, dropped out of the top 20 in the economic sub-index for the first time, passed by New Zealand and South Korea. (And no wonder, given America’s $1 trillion a year in “quantitative easing.”) Meanwhile, Mexico (59th overall), overtook Brazil (46th) in the economic ranking.
In the overall prosperity ranking, Bangladesh (103rd) surpassed India (106th) for the first time, having made material improvements in education and health care in recent years. The United Kingdom fell three positions to 16th, getting leapfropped by Austria (15th), Germany (14th) and Iceland (13th).
When you look over the five-year period that Legatum has been preparing this index, the biggest improvements have been made in East Asia, where China has climbed in the economic sub-ranking to seventh from 34th five years ago. South America is also up a tad, while Europe, to no one’s surprise, is stagnant. Denmark’s economic ranking has plunged from 5th to 23rd. Overall, the world’s lagging areas include “governance” and “safety & security.” The Arab Spring upheaval hasn’t helped either of those. A five-year bright spot: the “entrepreneurship & opportunity” category — due almost entirely to the rise of the internet and of mobile connectivity. Smart phones have been a societal revolution.
Over the three years that I’ve written about Legatum’s Index, readers have chimed in with criticisms of the methodology and the rankings. People who have spent time in Oslo and Stockholm insist that Scandinavians really aren’t happier, but are all too prone to nihilism, alcoholism and suicide.
In contrast, poor people in isolated tribal groups may not have access to electricity or running water, but their stronger sense of community and culture often gives them a naturally more upbeat and cheerful outlook on the world, some argue.
Happiness is subjective, not objective, and what defines it can be debated ad infinitum. Does prosperity equal happiness? Not always, but it sure helps. Are you happy with your life? Perhaps you’ve considered that question while stuck in traffic in your fancy car on your commute to your important job in an impressive office building. You’ve fantasized about jettisoning it all, abandoning the office, the mortgage, the suits, the stress, the 24/7 electronic tether. It would be nice, you think, to retreat to a shack by the ocean where you’ll scrape out a living growing your own organic vegetables, enjoy every sunset, reading books and raising your kids to be self-reliant. Would that make you happy? Maybe, as long as you pursued your neo-agrarian lifestyle in a country where first-world accoutrements remained a couple hours drive away down a well-paved road where you can be confident that armed gunmen aren’t about to stop and mug you.
Legatum scores the world’s countries on entrepreneurship, personal freedom, health, economy, social capital, education, safety & security, and governance. Reading through their 60 pages of rankings and findings the most powerful takeaway is that prosperity (or happiness) is an emergent property of societal traits. Politicians or tycoons can’t just pull or push a few levers and achieve prosperity for the masses. Rather it’s a holistic thing that must be nurtured over the generations and is greatly influenced by factors like climate, culture, geography, natural resources and luck.
Norway has ranked first on Legatum’s list in each of the past five years. It’s helped along by the fact that its homogenous and egalitarian population of 4 million is economically bolstered by vast troves of offshore oil and gas. State-owned Statoil has become one of the world’s most capable oil companies, and Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has been filled with more than $400 billion in oil and gas royalties. That funds a big social safety net. Lucky Norwegians. A small population amid vast natural resources has also benefitted Canada and Australia.
But in a country without a history of social cohesion, natural resources can be a curse. Witness Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, where oil or diamonds have made a very few very rich.
The oil-soaked Middle Eastern nations don’t rank particularly high on the index. That’s in part because colonial powers drew borders on maps with no regard to historic tribal territories. But especially because fundamentalist Islam is antithetical to Legatum’s “personal freedom” subindex. It’s impossible to achieve a high level of prosperity when women are often not allowed to vote or drive or speak their mind and where “infidels” are not just scorned but put to death. Little surprise that 8 of the 15 worst countries for personal freedom are found in the Middle East and North Africa.
Is it racist or prejudiced to assert that Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan will never be as prosperous or happy as Norway because of the way that those countries treat their women? Maybe so. Some critics have called Legatum’s index racist — it’s all white countries on the top and black ones on the bottom. Ugh. Don’t blame Legatum for the devastating effect of 400 years of imperialist colonialism and slavery. History matters. Tragic histories take centuries to overcome.
The good thing is, human prosperity and happiness is not a zero-sum game. Sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t not have to be destitute in order for Europe to be comfortable. Indeed, with so many African countries starting from so low on the rankings, the potential to bring about vast improvements in prosperity is within reach. Infant mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa was 79.1 per 1,000 births in 2009, according to Legatum’s data. It has since fallen to 56.2 — a meaningful improvement, though still considerably worse than the 20.1 world average and 4.9 European average. Perhaps the easiest way to improve mortality and reduce childrens’ suffering is through generous funding of immunizations.
Technology too will inevitably bring increasing prosperity. In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, people continue to expend a big portion of their income on kerosene to fuel the lamps that provide light. But kerosene is costly and gives off unhealthy smoke and fumes. Long before universal electric service reaches the dark corners, their plight will be dramatically improved by the introduction of highly efficient LED-based lamps that are recharged by built-in solar panels, and pay for themselves in kerosene savings in just a couple months.
Moreover, there’s things we can all do to make the world more prosperous. According to the inputs that make up Legatum’s data sets, here’s a few: Pay attention to your kids’ education. Exercise your rights to vote and to express political opinions. Be tolerant of different viewpoints and different kinds of people. Get yourself out of debt and save some money. Be mindful of the environment. Eat right and get enough sleep. Help others. Get married. Go to church. Know your neighbors. Volunteer. Donate to charities. Quit worrying. Try to be happy.