What makes a country the best? Is it leadership? Military might? Economic strength? A rich and deep vein of culture and history? Freedom, a stable government and transparency when it comes to business and the political process?
In a word, yes. All of the above contribute to how people perceive what makes one country better than another -- and ultimately which one ranks as the best overall.
U.S. News & World Report, in collaboration with BAV Consulting and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sought to answer the question of what makes a best country to produce the Best Countries rankings. The survey sampled the perceptions of more than 16,000 people in four global regions. They were asked to associate 60 countries with specific attributes. An overall score was assigned to countries, based on how they were scored in the attributes. The countries were chosen on measures that included the United Nations' Human Development Index, gross domestic product, tourism and total exports. In all, the 60 countries in the rankings represent about three-fourths of the world's population and about 90 percent of global GDP.
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The responses were divided into eight broad topics and a further category called Movers, a research-based metric from BAV that is predictive of a country's future GDP growth. The topics include Adventure, Citizenship, Entrepreneurship, Heritage, Influence, Movers, Open for business, Power and Quality of life.
The survey asked people their views on what the best country is on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the most forward-looking country, to the best country to be a woman, start a career, raise children and many other topics.
And the results? Germany is viewed as the overall "best country." The home to Europe's largest economy is seen as the top country for encouraging entrepreneurship, and is highly regarded for providing global leadership and caring for its citizens. Its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom both the Financial Times and Time magazine named as their Person of the Year for 2015, has actively led her government to confront some of the world's most pressing challenges, such as the Greek debt crisis and the waves of immigrants sweeping across Europe.
Germany rose from the ashes of World War II to become Europe's foremost power and a world leader in many areas, not least of which is its economic prowess founded on its network of small and medium businesses known as "Mittlestand." The country is seen as a model for the way in which it trains workers in apprenticeships following secondary school education.
The United States, the world's greatest military power and largest economy, ranks fourth, trailing not only Germany but Canada and the United Kingdom, as well. Canada, which recently elected a new liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is rated highly on quality of life issues and transparency, while the U.K. is seen as an influential country that is the best nation to obtain an education.
"In terms of equality, we very much believe in it," says Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. "Some countries have difficulty putting equal rights into their constitution – Canada had it in their charter of rights from the beginning. We continue to believe in inspiration through equality of rights. It's an inspirational part of our culture."
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A common thread among the leading countries is a strong role for the government in the everyday lives of the citizenry. Strong social safety nets – including the provision of low-cost college education and health care in countries like Germany, Sweden and Austria – are allied with a joint role for business and government in economic policy. This stands in stark contrast to the United States, where political debates often rage about the role of government in the economy, and soaring university student loan debt is seen as a major national issue threatening future prosperity.
"There really does seem to be some skepticism about some things that we (Americans) think we may do better than other people do, education being a prime one," says Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer at U.S. News and World Report. "Canada and the United Kingdom do better than the U.S. in education. People don't feel as comfortable about U.S. education as perhaps we've been led to believe."
Rounding out the top 10 are Sweden, Australia, Japan, France, the Netherlands and Denmark. Japan, a country known for its technological prowess, is rated highly for its entrepreneurship, while Sweden is rated first in citizenship, a progressive ranking that factors in education and the climate for women and the LGBT community.
Algeria, a North African country facing multiple challenges ranging from international criticism of its record on civil liberties to tackling terrorism and high unemployment, finished at the bottom of the rankings. Other countries that finished at the bottom of the Best Countries rankings include Ukraine, Iran, Nigeria and Pakistan. All of the low-ranking countries face common challenges of corruption, conflict and a poor quality of life for their citizens. Many are struggling with insurgent movements and terrorism within their borders.
Survey respondents see Asia as a key for the future. The top five-ranked countries in the Movers subranking – India, Singapore, China, Thailand and Japan – come from the region. Singapore also is seen as the most forward-looking country, with Japan and South Korea also rated high.
"India, which is the (world's) largest democracy, has emerged as a global leader," Dnyaneshwar Mulay, consul general of India in New York City, says in an interview with BAV. "India encourages pluralism, inclusiveness and equal opportunity to all its citizens. It has strong soft power of long heritage, diverse forms of arts and culture and strong values such as respect for all and non-violence. "
The rankings show that the idea of power is changing around the world, says John Gerzema, chairman and CEO at BAV Consulting. "We live in a social, open and interdependent world. And in this world what we saw that people valued more were things like global citizenship, quality of life and innovation that was creating inclusive prosperity for more people."
The survey provides not only a snapshot of what makes a particular country good or bad, but also offers a road map to governments and other institutions on how they might adopt policies that would win them more favorable perceptions, says David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the Wharton School.
"They have ministers of foreign trade and they have ministers of tourism and spend a lot of time trying to attract commerce," Reibstein says. "And that attraction is going to come through people's perceptions of whether or not you're a good place to do business. And therefore it's really important for government leaders and for businesses within those countries to really focus on these perceptions."
In some cases, the results hue to long-held opinions about certain countries. France and Italy score highly, for example, on cultural heritage, be it the tremendous works of art and literature in France or the world-famous cuisine of Italy. In other cases, there are surprises. Luxembourg is viewed as the best country to conduct business, while the Southeast Asian nations of Thailand, Malaysiaand the Philippines are seen as the best countries to start a business. Egypt, a country plagued by violence and poverty, is seen as a country with promise, ranking high in the "Movers" topic.
"I think countries end up having sort of personas," says Dennis Ross, in an interview with BAV. Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a veteran White House adviser on Middle East policy, cites Germany as a country with a reputation of having institutions that perform well. "There's an image internationally that Germany functions and functions well. There is a kind of history – certainly since the Second World War – of Germany transforming itself and becoming a country that basically works."
At a time of global movement, shrinking borders and international business that connects economies, countries can no longer exist alone, separate from their neighbors and natural competitors.
"Government leaders should be paying attention to these rankings," says Reibstein. "This is how they're perceived in the world and it affects their economies from within."
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