Warren Buffett likes to say that anything good that’s ever happened to him can be traced back to the fact that he was born in the right country—America—at the right time. And it’s true: while remarkable individuals can be found in any nation on earth, certain countries give their citizens much greater opportunity to succeed than others at certain points in time. It’s an issue that is particularly pressing today. As wealth and power shift from West to East, and a new post-crisis world order continues to take shape, it’s no longer clear that being born and raised in Omaha offers quite the edge that it once might have.
In NEWSWEEK’s first-ever Best Countries special issue, we set out to answer a question that is at once simple and incredibly complex—if you were born today, which country would provide you the very best opportunity to live a healthy, safe, reasonably prosperous, and upwardly mobile life? Many organizations measure various aspects of national competitiveness. But none attempt to put them all together. For this special survey, then, NEWSWEEK chose five categories of national well-being—education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness, and political environment—and compiled metrics within these categories across 100 nations. A weighted formula yielded an overall list of the world’s top 100 countries (for a look at the exact data points we used and how we weighted them, as well as how each country did across the various categories, check out newsweek.com).
The effort took several months, during which we received copious aid from an advisory board that included Nobel laureate and Columbia University professor Joseph E. Stiglitz; McKinsey & Co. Social Sector Office director Byron Auguste; McKinsey Global Institute director James Manyika; Jody Heymann, the founding director of McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and a professor at the university; and Geng Xiao, director of Columbia's Global Center for East Asia.
They would be the first to admit that like any list, this one isn’t perfect. Finding comparable data points for the world’s richest and poorest countries alike was hugely constraining—often we had to choose fewer or less-nuanced metrics in order to include the broadest array of nations. What’s more, our list represents a snapshot of how countries looked in 2008 and 2009 (we always used the most recent data available for each metric), rather than a historic or predictive view—a country like Thailand or Kenya, for example, may have scored higher on political stability two years ago than it would today. Careful readers will notice that while some of the effects of the financial crisis can already be seen in our list, others are still playing out. (Rich but indebted countries like the U.S. and the U.K. may pay a price for their massive deficits in the future.) It’s also important to remember that rankings are perhaps most illustrative when comparing countries of equal size and wealth—which is why we broke down our main group of 100 into smaller sublists based on population and income.
All that said, the list tells us some important things about the world. For starters, smaller is often better. While there’s no denying the vitality of emerging-market giants like China or Brazil or Turkey, they are often bested by tiny nations like Slovenia or Estonia, according to the data, simply because it takes less effort for these countries to improve their overall levels of well-being. (China may be the world’s second-largest economy, but more than half of its 1.3 billion population still lives in grinding poverty.) Of course, being small and rich is best—witness the continuing success of the Nordic nations. A good, broad-based educational system is crucial—it’s very closely linked to future economic prosperity, and one of the most important reasons that the U.S., Western Europe, and rich Asian nations like South Korea and Japan score well.
Throughout this package, we’ll dig more deeply into what makes a country great, and deconstruct how and why certain countries rose to the top of our lists. But perhaps the most important thing that this exercise has reinforced is that there is no one model for national success; any conventional wisdom that says Beijing or Brasília now has the answer, rather than Washington, is wrong. The winners are quite a varied group, and have found myriad ways to create vibrant, healthy, and (dare we say) happy societies. That’s a nugget of wisdom that leaders and policymakers would do well to keep in mind as they try to score better in years ahead.