Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Which is the Best Country in the World in Which to Live?
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all ….?”

The witch in the story of “Snow White” exams her mirror to ensure that she is “fairest of them all.” She is insecure while she is doing it. In this she is not so dissimilar from those who constantly seek to console themselves, often by reading front page comments in national papers, that they live in the best place because so and so told them so.

Virtually everywhere could be determined to be “best” depending on the criteria used to determine “best-ness.” Greenland and Antarctica, for example, might be locked in competition for the “Best Country” had the criteria focussed upon the needs of those with serious hay fever. Saudi Arabia, which I had the pleasure of visiting a few years ago, would be “best” if lack of public religious diversity was what rang ones’ chimes.

Canadians are masters at self-congratulation about their being the “best country” because they focus on the criteria of the UN Human Development Index (HDI). But wait; is it not a solid fact that Canada is simply THE best place to live in the entire world? The short answer is, well, er, no.

Just for fun do a Google search on the term “Best place in the world to live” and you can sit back and chuckle at the results. At the time of the writing of this, the (ahem) 100th blog on this site, Norway, Ireland and Canada all claim the title because, depending on the criteria, all measure tops in different studies.

The much vaunted HDI results that Canadians puff turns out to be a measure of only certain things and some of them seem a bit strange when you consider what is left out.

The HDI looks at the health, education and wealth of each nation's citizens by measuring:

Life expectancy [is that “health”? Not according to my friends on long, long line-ups for hip surgery and hobbling around in agony for years!]

Educational achievement -- adult literacy plus combined primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment; [is graduation from Canadian schooling “education” against meaningful standards?]

Standard of living [again, is subjective “satisfaction” a measure here?]
Real GDP per capita based on PPP exchange rates [where is “happiness” or “satisfaction” here?].

The UN also computes a Gender-Related Development Index that extends the HDI to take into account gender differences in the ranking criteria. Canada ranks well in this category: 2nd in 2002, 1st in 1997, and 2nd in 1996.

Ah, yes, there would be a “gender” measure emanating from the UN wouldn’t there? Does the HDI measure the “human happiness” aspect of “gender differences” and policies to eradicate them? Hardly. Doesn’t this HDI list seem a little sparse to you? A little reminiscent of Greenland and Antarctica in terms of what really matters to human happiness? It does to me. It does to others too.

Consider, for example, the measures looked at by The Economist magazine. Its measure points out the shortcomings of the way Canada’s “best-ness” is measured by the HDI. Here is what the magazine says:

“It has long been accepted that material well-being alone does not adequately measure quality of life. Money matters, of course, but surveys suggest that over the decades big increases in income have translated into only a modest rise in satisfaction. Although rising incomes and expanded individual choice are highly valued, some of the factors associated with modernization—such as the breakdown of traditional institutions and the erosion of family values—in part offset its positive impact.
But how to combine in a single, comparative statistic the factors believed to influence people’s happiness? There have been many attempts, none entirely successful: the factors selected, and the weights assigned to them, tend to be arbitrary. Subjective surveys of “life satisfaction” have been attracting growing interest—especially since the evidence is that people in different countries and cultures cite similar criteria for being contented—but getting comparable surveys across many countries is hard and there is too much margin for error for a truly objective quality-of-life index.

So ours takes a new approach. We use life-satisfaction surveys (assembling the average scores for 74 countries) as a starting point for weighting the various factors that determine quality of life. A regression analysis suggests that as many as nine indicators have a significant influence, and can be turned into an equation explaining more than 80% of the variation in countries’life-satisfaction scores. The main factor is income, but other things are also important: health, freedom, unemployment, family life, climate, political stability and security, gender equality, and family and community life. We feed the factors into the equation, measuring them using forecasts for 2005 where possible (in four cases) and latest data for slower-changing indicators, such as family life and political freedom. The resulting score, on a scale of one to ten, gives the quality-of-life index. A full explanation of the methodology and a full country ranking are available to download….” [On the Economist website for this article at]

Thanks Economist! That makes a bit more sense. And when this sort of approach is done for Canada? Well, well, well, Canada is 14th and Ireland is first. Ireland! Don’t the darlings of the age tell us the Ireland is a Priest-ridden, anti-choice place of backwardness and perpetual rain?

The UN measures money and long life, sure, but we have to ask how long health care waiting lists make citizens feel. Just judging from my own acquaintances, there is a big difference between being financially secure and gender balanced and being able to walk without pain to the bathroom!

Canadians may be increasingly materially well off, gender balanced and child-cared up the ying/yang but on more rigorous measures of satisfaction, such as used by the Economist survey, they are increasingly dissatisfied and unhappy. And citizens that are unhappy do not believe they live in the best countries. I bet we don’t read THAT on the front pages of the Globe and Mail or the National Post! The facts in the mirror do not lie despite the smoke and mirrors of the propagandists.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 100
Iain T. Benson©