Simon Anholt: Which country does the most good for the world? @ TEDSalon Berlin

I had the pleasure of attending a special TED event in 2014. TEDSalon Berlin was just a one day affair, yet it featured a number of compelling talks that served as examples of impactful stories on global issues. This post is an analysis of a talk given by Simon Anholt.

Watch Simon Anholt’s TED Talk. We all know that some countries are much more concerned with the fate of the entire world, but how can the level of a country’s goodness be measured? It seemed to be an impossible task to me, but Simon describes how it can be done, and it remains one of my favorite TED Talks.

Do you want to live in a powerful country, a rich country, a happy country, or a good country? Regardless of how you answer the question, the underlying point of this talk (in my opinion) is to encourage us to think differently about how we perceive countries around the world. Will your story shift people’s perceptions?


(my notes in red)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the world recently and how it’s changed over the last 20, 30, 40 years. Twenty or 30 years ago, if a chicken caught a cold and sneezed and died in a remote village in East Asia, it would have been a tragedy for the chicken and its closest relatives, but I don’t think there was much possibility of us fearing a global pandemic and the deaths of millions. Twenty or 30 years ago, if a bank in North America lent too much money to some people who couldn’t afford to pay it back and the bank went bust, that was bad for the lender and bad for the borrower, but we didn’t imagine it would bring the global economic system to its knees for nearly a decade.

This is globalization. This is the miracle that has enabled us to transship our bodies and our minds and our words and our pictures and our ideas and our teaching and our learning around the planet ever faster and ever cheaper. It’s brought a lot of bad stuff, like the stuff that I just described, but it’s also brought a lot of good stuff. A lot of us are not aware of the extraordinary successes of the Millennium Development Goals, several of which have achieved their targets long before the due date. That proves that this species of humanity is capable of achieving extraordinary progress if it really acts together and it really tries hard.

But if I had to put it in a nutshell these days, I sort of feel that globalization has taken us by surprise, and we’ve been slow to respond to it. If you look at the downside of globalization, it really does seem to be sometimes overwhelming. All of the grand challenges that we face today, like climate change and human rights and demographics and terrorism and pandemics and narco-trafficking and human slavery and species loss, I could go on, we’re not making an awful lot of progress against an awful lot of those challenges.

So in a nutshell, that’s the challenge that we all face today at this interesting point in history. That’s clearly what we’ve got to do next. We’ve somehow got to get our act together and we’ve got to figure out how to globalize the solutions better so that we don’t simply become a species which is the victim of the globalization of problems.

Setting the stage is an important element of any idea-driven story. If the intent of your idea is to make things better, your story needs to describe the current state of affairs with regards to your topic. In this talk, Simon spends two minutes framing the status quo around the notion of globalization. His take is that, while it has brought us many benefits, our global society has struggled to implement solutions to critical issues.

Can you identify a key element that your story revolves around? One that will serve as a launching point for the journey you’ll be taking your audience on?

Why are we so slow at achieving these advances? What’s the reason for it? Well, there are, of course, a number of reasons, but perhaps the primary reason is because we’re still organized as a species in the same way that we were organized 200 or 300 years ago. There’s one superpower left on the planet and that is the seven billion people, the seven billion of us who cause all these problems, the same seven billion, by the way, who will resolve them all. But how are those seven billion organized? They’re still organized in 200 or so nation-states, and the nations have governments that make rules and cause us to behave in certain ways.

And that’s a pretty efficient system, but the problem is that the way that those laws are made and the way those governments think is absolutely wrong for the solution of global problems, because it all looks inwards. The politicians that we elect and the politicians we don’t elect, on the whole, have minds that microscope. They don’t have minds that telescope. They look in. They pretend, they behave, as if they believed that every country was an island that existed quite happily, independently of all the others on its own little planet in its own little solar system.

This is the problem: countries competing against each other, countries fighting against each other. This week, as any week you care to look at, you’ll find people actually trying to kill each other from country to country, but even when that’s not going on, there’s competition between countries, each one trying to shaft the next. This is clearly not a good arrangement. We clearly need to change it. We clearly need to find ways of encouraging countries to start working together a little bit better. And why won’t they do that? Why is it that our leaders still persist in looking inwards?

Simon describes one aspect of how the political systems operate by using a visual metaphor – microscope vs. telescope. The audience easily understands the difference between focusing on a cell vs. seeing the entire universe. Do you need to provide detailed explanation to make your point clear, or is there a metaphor that can accomplish the same thing in a shorter span of time? Also note how he uses questions as a way of transitioning into the next section.

Well, the first and most obvious reason is because that’s what we ask them to do. That’s what we tell them to do. When we elect governments or when we tolerate unelected governments, we’re effectively telling them that what we want is for them to deliver us in our country a certain number of things. We want them to deliver prosperity, growth, competitiveness, transparency, justice and all of those things. So unless we start asking our governments to think outside a little bit, to consider the global problems that will finish us all if we don’t start considering them, then we can hardly blame them if what they carry on doing is looking inwards, if they still have minds that microscope rather than minds that telescope. That’s the first reason why things tend not to change.

The second reason is that these governments, just like all the rest of us, are cultural psychopaths. I don’t mean to be rude, but you know what a psychopath is. A psychopath is a person who, unfortunately for him or her, lacks the ability to really empathize with other human beings. When they look around, they don’t see other human beings with deep, rich, three-dimensional personal lives and aims and ambitions. What they see is cardboard cutouts, and it’s very sad and it’s very lonely, and it’s very rare, fortunately.

But actually, aren’t most of us not really so very good at empathy? Oh sure, we’re very good at empathy when it’s a question of dealing with people who kind of look like us and kind of walk and talk and eat and pray and wear like us, but when it comes to people who don’t do that, who don’t quite dress like us and don’t quite pray like us and don’t quite talk like us, do we not also have a tendency to see them ever so slightly as cardboard cutouts too? And this is a question we need to ask ourselves. I think constantly we have to monitor it. Are we and our politicians to a degree cultural psychopaths?

The third reason is hardly worth mentioning because it’s so silly, but there’s a belief amongst governments that the domestic agenda and the international agenda are incompatible and always will be. This is just nonsense. In my day job, I’m a policy adviser. I’ve spent the last 15 years or so advising governments around the world, and in all of that time I have never once seen a single domestic policy issue that could not be more imaginatively, effectively and rapidly resolved than by treating it as an international problem, looking at the international context, comparing what others have done, bringing in others, working externally instead of working internally.

Simon presents three examples as an answer to the question of why leaders still look inward. Knowing that a problem exists is different from understanding why that problem exists. What’s the narrative behind your problem? What points do you need to share with your audience so that they gain a basic understanding?

Since idea-driven stories need to come from a place of credibility – people are less likely to accept an idea if the person presenting it is not an expert on the subject – Simon also takes this opportunity to begin sharing the fact that he professionally studies this topic by stating, ‘I’ve spent the last 15 years or so advising governments around the world’.

And so you may say, well, given all of that, why then doesn’t it work? Why can we not make our politicians change? Why can’t we demand them? Well I, like a lot of us, spend a lot of time complaining about how hard it is to make people change, and I don’t think we should fuss about it. I think we should just accept that we are an inherently conservative species. We don’t like to change. It exists for very sensible evolutionary reasons. We probably wouldn’t still be here today if we weren’t so resistant to change.

It’s very simple: Many thousands of years ago, we discovered that if we carried on doing the same things, we wouldn’t die, because the things that we’ve done before by definition didn’t kill us, and therefore as long as we carry on doing them, we’ll be okay, and it’s very sensible not to do anything new, because it might kill you. But of course, there are exceptions to that. Otherwise, we’d never get anywhere. And one of the exceptions, the interesting exception, is when you can show to people that there might be some self-interest in them making that leap of faith and changing a little bit.

So I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 or 15 years trying to find out what could be that self-interest that would encourage not just politicians but also businesses and general populations, all of us, to start to think a little more outwardly, to think in a bigger picture, not always to look inwards, sometimes to look outwards. And this is where I discovered something quite important.

In 2005, I launched a study called the Nation Brands Index. What it is, it’s a very large-scale study that polls a very large sample of the world’s population, a sample that represents about 70 percent of the planet’s population, and I started asking them a series of questions about how they perceive other countries.

And the Nation Brands Index over the years has grown to be a very, very large database. It’s about 200 billion data points tracking what ordinary people think about other countries and why. Why did I do this? Well, because the governments that I advise are very, very keen on knowing how they are regarded. They’ve known, partly because I’ve encouraged them to realize it, that countries depend enormously on their reputations in order to survive and prosper in the world.

If a country has a great, positive image, like Germany has or Sweden or Switzerland, everything is easy and everything is cheap. You get more tourists. You get more investors. You sell your products more expensively. If, on the other hand, you have a country with a very weak or a very negative image, everything is difficult and everything is expensive. So governments care desperately about the image of their country, because it makes a direct difference to how much money they can make, and that’s what they’ve promised their populations they’re going to deliver.

Simon expands on his expertise in detail by describing a study that he launched, and he also introduces the concept of brand – how people perceive things – in the context of a country’s reputation. As you’ll see, he uses ‘brand’ as a bridge to ‘good’.

So a couple of years ago, I thought I would take some time out and speak to that gigantic database and ask it, why do some people prefer one country more than another? And the answer that the database gave me completely staggered me. It was 6.8. I haven’t got time to explain in detail. Basically what it told me was the kinds of countries we prefer are good countries.

We don’t admire countries primarily because they’re rich, because they’re powerful, because they’re successful, because they’re modern, because they’re technologically advanced. We primarily admire countries that are good. What do we mean by good? We mean countries that seem to contribute something to the world in which we live, countries that actually make the world safer or better or richer or fairer. Those are the countries we like.

This is a discovery of significant importance – you see where I’m going – because it squares the circle. I can now say, and often do, to any government, in order to do well, you need to do good. If you want to sell more products, if you want to get more investment, if you want to become more competitive, then you need to start behaving, because that’s why people will respect you and do business with you, and therefore, the more you collaborate, the more competitive you become.

Now at the midpoint of his talk, Simon summarizes what his study found, that ‘in order to do well, you need to do good’. Ideas come from a combination of personal experience and scientific research. It doesn’t necessarily mean the idea is correct, but in a well told story there exists a logical progression which leads to the idea’s formation in the mind of the speaker.

This is quite an important discovery, and as soon as I discovered this, I felt another index coming on. I swear that as I get older, my ideas become simpler and more and more childish. This one is called the Good Country Index, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. It measures, or at least it tries to measure, exactly how much each country on Earth contributes not to its own population but to the rest of humanity.

Bizarrely, nobody had ever thought of measuring this before. So my colleague Dr. Robert Govers and I have spent the best part of the last two years, with the help of a large number of very serious and clever people, cramming together all the reliable data in the world we could find about what countries give to the world.

And you’re waiting for me to tell you which one comes top. And I’m going to tell you, but first of all I want to tell you precisely what I mean when I say a good country. I do not mean morally good. When I say that Country X is the goodest country on Earth, and I mean goodest, I don’t mean best. Best is something different.

When you’re talking about a good country, you can be good, gooder and goodest. It’s not the same thing as good, better and best. This is a country which simply gives more to humanity than any other country. I don’t talk about how they behave at home because that’s measured elsewhere. And the winner is Ireland.

According to the data here, no country on Earth, per head of population, per dollar of GDP, contributes more to the world that we live in than Ireland. What does this mean? This means that as we go to sleep at night, all of us in the last 15 seconds before we drift off to sleep, our final thought should be, godammit, I’m glad that Ireland exists.

And that, in the depths of a very severe economic recession, I think that there’s a really important lesson there, that if you can remember your international obligations whilst you are trying to rebuild your own economy, that’s really something. Finland ranks pretty much the same. The only reason why it’s below Ireland is because its lowest score is lower than Ireland’s lowest score.

About three quarters of the way into his talk Simon reveals the primary point of the story – the Good Country Index – and the results of his study. But results and reasons are different, so he then examines his findings in greater detail. For your story, what did you learn along the way? What did you conclude from your research?

Now the other thing you’ll notice about the top 10 there is, of course, they’re all, apart from New Zealand, Western European nations. They’re also all rich. This depressed me, because one of the things that I did not want to discover with this index is that it’s purely the province of rich countries to help poor countries. This is not what it’s all about.

And indeed, if you look further down the list, I don’t have the slide here, you will see something that made me very happy indeed, that Kenya is in the top 30, and that demonstrates one very, very important thing. This is not about money. This is about attitude. This is about culture. This is about a government and a people that care about the rest of the world and have the imagination and the courage to think outwards instead of only thinking selfishly.

I’m going to whip through the other slides just so you can see some of the lower-lying countries. There’s Germany at 13th, the U.S. comes 21st, Mexico comes 66th, and then we have some of the big developing countries, like Russia at 95th, China at 107th. Countries like China and Russia and India, which is down in the same part of the index, well, in some ways, it’s not surprising. They’ve spent a great deal of time over the last decades building their own economy, building their own society and their own polity, but it is to be hoped that the second phase of their growth will be somewhat more outward-looking than the first phase has been so far.

And then you can break down each country in terms of the actual datasets that build into it. I’ll allow you to do that. From midnight tonight it’s going to be on, and you can look at the country. You can look right down to the level of the individual datasets.

Simon’s slides are very busy, with more data than can be comprehended in such a short talk, but showing the different categories and rankings provides its own sense of credibility to the conclusions being drawn. Simply showing a list of countries with overall rank would be much easier for the audience to read, but far less effective in making his point.

Striking a balance between presenting too much and too little data is always a challenge when deciding how much to share. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. It’s something you have to determine for yourself. If you have the time, rehearse with different versions of your slides before making a final commitment.

Now that’s the Good Country Index. What’s it there for? Well, it’s there really because I want to try to introduce this word, or reintroduce this word, into the discourse. I’ve had enough hearing about competitive countries. I’ve had enough hearing about prosperous, wealthy, fast-growing countries. I’ve even had enough hearing about happy countries because in the end that’s still selfish. That’s still about us, and if we carry on thinking about us, we are in deep, deep trouble.

I think we all know what it is that we want to hear about. We want to hear about good countries, and so I want to ask you all a favor. I’m not asking a lot. It’s something that you might find easy to do and you might even find enjoyable and even helpful to do, and that’s simply to start using the word “good” in this context. When you think about your own country, when you think about other people’s countries, when you think about companies, when you talk about the world that we live in today, start using that word in the way that I’ve talked about this evening.

Not good, the opposite of bad, because that’s an argument that never finishes. Good, the opposite of selfish, good being a country that thinks about all of us. That’s what I would like you to do, and I’d like you to use it as a stick with which to beat your politicians. When you elect them, when you reelect them, when you vote for them, when you listen to what they’re offering you, use that word, “good,” and ask yourself, “Is that what a good country would do?”

And if the answer is no, be very suspicious. Ask yourself, is that the behavior of my country? Do I want to come from a country where the government, in my name, is doing things like that? Or do I, on the other hand, prefer the idea of walking around the world with my head held high thinking, “Yeah, I’m proud to come from a good country”? And everybody will welcome you. And everybody in the last 15 seconds before they drift off to sleep at night will say, “Gosh, I’m glad that person’s country exists.”

Ultimately, that, I think, is what will make the change. That word, “good,” and the number 6.8 and the discovery that’s behind it have changed my life. I think they can change your life, and I think we can use it to change the way that our politicians and our companies behave, and in doing so, we can change the world. I’ve started thinking very differently about my own country since I’ve been thinking about these things. I used to think that I wanted to live in a rich country, and then I started thinking I wanted to live in a happy country, but I began to realize, it’s not enough. I don’t want to live in a rich country. I don’t want to live in a fast-growing or competitive country. I want to live in a good country, and I so, so hope that you do too.

Simon’s conclusion includes a call to action for the audience – to think differently about their own country from the standpoint of doing good – ‘good being a country that thinks about all of us’. What shift in perception do you want your audience to adopt after hearing your story? When they leave the theatre will they think of the world (and their place in it) differently?

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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