Saturday, August 25, 2012

Last Place

I’m one of those people who love lists. And I’m not alone, judging by how eager magazines are to entice readers with such rankings as “America’s twenty best companies to work for” or “Hollywood’s 10 shortest leading men”. I saw a recent listing that ranked my alma mater, the University of Georgia, as the nation’s fifth-best “party school”. What’s happened? I thought we used to be number one.

Lists are also a seemingly irresistible tool for the public relations industry, a sure way to generate some attention and spark some debate. When the ranking involves countries, or states, it can even incite some cheap patriotism.

A couple of years ago, Newsweek published a special issue on the world’s best countries, ranking them according such basic criteria as education, quality of life, health, etc. To no great surprise to those of us living in Helsinki, Finland was ranked number one overall. Well, okay, maybe to some surprise.

A map of dysfunction. The Failed State Index for 2010. Courtesy The Fund for Peace. 

The US, sadly, came in at number 11, sandwiched between Denmark and Germany, but much better than, say, Belgium (number 19), yay!

The comparison between Finland and the US was telling: Finland ranked first in education (the US 26th), fourth in quality of life (the US ninth), 17th in health (the US even worse at 26th), and fifth in “political environment” (US 14th). Only in the category of “economic dynamism” did the US (second place) outrank Finland (eighth).

While I imagine most Finns felt some quiet self-satisfaction with this outcome, the reaction among some Americans to NOT being declared number one in the world approached the apoplectic.

Newsweek was derided as a pathetic, leftist publication, not worth the one dollar (literally one dollar) that the company (yes, the entire company) was then being sold for. How times have changed, with the newsweekly now coming under fire from liberals for its most recent cover story, a controversial takedown of Barack Obama. I guess Newsweek is now trying to strike a balance.

Some critics of the “Best Country” list in 2010 cried that the methodology Newsweek used was flawed and biased. For others, it didn’t matter where the data came from or how Newsweek came to its conclusions – they simply “knew” America is the best country and that’s all there was to it. For many it was a classic case of shooting the messenger while ignoring the message. They refused to consider that the study’s picture of the US might actually point to some legitimate room for improvement.

As someone who grew up in America, I can understand this. We are taught that the US is the greatest country on earth, no question, and as most of us never come to know much about other countries, we have no reason to think otherwise.

I'm sure citizens of small countries like Finland also grow up with this kind of patriotic bias – just witness the fervor of Finnish hockey fans, especially when the opponent is Sweden. But being from a small country, Finns can’t help being exposed to other nations that might have it just as good, or even better, than they do. They are forced to realize that in some respects they are not necessary unique or even exceptional.

And don’t get me wrong. I love many things about America. It is a great country, and it's my country. It’s just not the only great country. And I don’t think that recognizing that fact makes me any less American.

Anyway, the Newsweek survey is just one of several similar that frequently place Finland near the top in important national qualities such as education or government transparency. In the future, I’ll use this blog to share some of these lists.

I’ll start off, however, with a ranking where Finland comes in last place, while the number one spot goes to Somalia.

The Failed State Index is published annually by the Fund for Peace, a US-based NGO focusing on developmental and security issues. To compile the index, FFP assigns to each country scores (1-10) in 12 categories related to political and economic stability and security. In other words, it attempts to measure how functional or dysfunctional a country is.

Of course, as with any such survey, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt, especially in the nitty gritty details of whether a country deserves a score of 2.0 or 2.3 in, for example, “Legitimacy of the State”.

Still, the relative ranking seems about right, and in any case I’m sure the main point of these metrics, as imperfect as they may be, is to focus attention on the states in most need of help. It is indeed a somber list, with the world's most blighted nations prominent at the top.

Somalia, with a total of 114.9 points, comes closest to a perfect (in a perverse sort of way) score of 120, an indication of the depth of misery that that failed country’s people are forced to endure. Finland, in contrast, scores only 20, a slightly worse result than last year (19.7), when it also came in last place.

The list is another reminder that some of us are lucky enough to live in the least dysfunctional countries in the world. At the same time, you can't ignore the plight of those desperate nations at the top of the list, reminding us here in Finland to not be too smug about our own good fortune.

1 comment:

  1. I have never...and I mean NEVER...been a victim of nationalism. I'm just not into it. I don't understand the fervor of it and I've never taken part in it. I'm a good citizen--pay my taxes, work my job, obey the laws, etc. But I don't (and never will) get all excited over the fact that I live where I live. I know what my nation's flaws are, and they are vast. Why get excited over the fact that I was born where I happened to be born? Eh.

    Funny 'Failed State Index'. Of course one must keep in mind that the corporations who rule over us like weak states. The law making and enforcement apparatus is also weak (or nonexistent) in such states, making it easy for the corporations to loot such a nation of its resources. Look only as far as the USA to see mining companies removing entire mountains and dumping the toxic residue into the watersheds to see what is the product of being a failed state.