U.S. Trails Belgium in Ranking of Global Good. Seriously?

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United States: 21, Ireland: 1. No, that's not the score of the latest World Cup game (soccer fans can only dream of a high-scoring game like that). This is where the United States and Ireland fall out on something called the Good Country Index, a creation of Simon Anholt and Robert Govers — self-described independent policy advisors and professional repairers/improvers of national and local place reputations.

The Good Country Index ranks 125 countries across 35 data sets broken into seven areas of performance: health and well being; culture; international peace and security; world order; planet and climate; science and technology; and prosperity and equality.

Ireland takes the top spot due to the amount of open trade it has with other countries, the number of United Nations volunteers it sends abroad, its foreign direct investment (FDI) outflows, the size of its fair trade market, and the amount of development assistance it renders.

In the overall rankings, the U.S. also falls behind nations including Finland, Switzerland, New Zealand, the U.K., and even Iceland and Cyprus — and just two spots ahead of Malta. And since we mentioned soccer, the U.S. team’s next opponent, Belgium, places 10th overall.

Related: Who’s Still In and Who Will Advance from World Cup’s Round of 16

The U.S. ranking suffers because it places near the bottom in “International Peace and Security” and a weak 53rd when it comes to prosperity and equality. It's similarly outranked when it comes to other categories in the index—coming in at 28 for world order, 39 for planet and climate, 41 for culture. A top ten ranking for health and well being blunts the pain just a bit.

The U.S. ranks 26th in Science and Technology; Cyprus ranks third. And that’s just one example of how difficult it can be to create a ranking along these lines — and how deceptive the standings can be. Libya ranks dead last overall — yet it manages to place 16th in International Peace and Security. Because when you think of tech, you naturally think of Cyprus and not Silicon Valley, and when you ponder world peace, Libya leaps to mind.

Most of the datasets Anholt and Govers used came from the U.N. and other big international agencies. To try and level the playing field between rich countries, which can afford to do more, and poor countries, which can't, each country's score is divided by its gross domestic product. That helps explain some of the results. 

Related: The Economics of Happiness — Where the U.S. Ranks

Anholt and Govers stress they're not making moral judgments about countries ranked — that the good the index is attempting to measure is how much countries contribute to the "global commons."

"Try thinking of 'good' as a measure of how much a country contributes to the common good,” they explain on the site. “So in this context 'good' means the opposite of 'selfish,' not the opposite of 'bad' ... [The index] just measures, as objectively as possible, what each country contributes to the common good, and what it takes away."

But there are as many ways to slice up data as there are data sets to slice up. As such, the Good Country Index is not the last word on the subject of how well countries look after their neighbors, but it may be the first.

Lists like these typically look at how well countries look after themselves, and rank them accordingly. The Good Country Index may be the first list to look at how countries measure up when it comes to thinking beyond their borders.

Despite its flaws, it's an intriguing idea. And being ranked out of the top ten in any of the categories on this list should give pause to citizens, business leaders, and policymakers no matter what country they're from, anyway you slice it.

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