There are two possible explanations for the preponderance of Western countries at the top of the index: one is that the index is deliberately or accidentally biased in their favour; the other is that they really do contribute more to the world than other countries.
In all honesty I would rather it were the former, because that could more easily be corrected: as I said in my 2014 TED talk, the fact that Kenya managed to reach the Top 30 in the first edition gave me more pleasure than any other result. It would suit my agenda far better if more Eastern, Southern and/or developing countries had put rich Western countries to shame for their greater contribution to humanity or the planet. But unfortunately it just doesn’t seem to be the case — at least not using any of the data that’s robust, reliable, relevant and available.
And most of the data is produced by big international agencies — mainly in the UN system — which means that it’s usually actually collected by the statistical offices of the countries themselves. This leaves relatively little room for bias, and the UN represents most countries on earth.
As an experiment, we even tried deliberately to rig the rankings in a number of different ways, by excluding certain datasets (we couldn’t add any new ones because these 35 were the only suitable ones we could find after four years of research) and changing some of the calculation methods, just to see how different we could make the results. We tried dividing the data by population and by GNI, but it didn’t substantially change the ranking. The final decision to divide the results by GDP was made purely to avoid penalising poorer countries for their smaller economies.
So based on the available data, the fact we have to come to terms with is that Western countries do appear to contribute more to the international community at this point in history, even once you’ve factored out the size of their economies. Of course there are clear historical reasons for this.
In the case of EU member states (which dominate the top end of the scale) I believe that this is because they have a long habit of international collaboration and co-operation which other countries simply don’t have. To a limited extent, they’ve been attempting to practise what the Good Country preaches for the last 40 years.
For the rest, maybe it’s just down to the fact that the whole idea of the “international community” and pulling your weight on the global challenges is something that the West – for all its faults – has led from the start, and it continues to do so. The West, with its dominance in technology and business, has driven globalisation, has profited most from globalisation, has suffered in many ways from globalisation, and on the whole has made the greatest efforts to correct its risks and imbalances. Or at least it has done so in the case of financial, technological and organisational solutions: when it comes to simple humanity, such as accepting refugees, the West continues to play a highly inconsistent role, and is frequently put to shame by some non-Western countries.
Countries in the South and East, on the whole, have tended to be more inwardly or regionally focused: many of them have big domestic problems still to address (in some cases, this is thanks to the legacy of colonialism left by today’s rich countries); some are not only happy to be free-riders on the planet, they also feel it’s their right. And there may be some rough justice in this, but the kind of justice that punishes everybody, including the righteous, is primitive justice indeed.
Perhaps others feel somehow excluded from the “international community” despite the plethora of international institutions that all countries can belong to these days, and perhaps lack the necessary self-confidence to participate actively in global issues.
Things are gradually changing: for example, some wealthy Middle Eastern countries are starting to contribute to poverty reduction in Africa and Asia.
But somehow we have to face these realities, however uncomfortable they are, and work out the consequences. It’s too easy just to dismiss the data as biased, as many do, simply because it doesn’t produce results that correspond to their world-view. We can’t make progress on these critical issues as long as we remain in denial about the fact that not enough countries do enough to make the world work better.
And that includes Western countries too, of course: just because they rank higher in the index doesn’t mean they are doing anything like enough for the world, and most of them do enormous amounts of harm to humanity and the planet as well as good: the fact that, for example, Sweden ranks so low in the “Peace and Security” category, mainly because of its huge weapons exports, is inexcusable hypocrisy, no matter that it ranked first in Version 1.1 of the Index despite this — and one can make similar criticisms of most Western countries.
Rightly or wrongly, the West cannot shoulder the burden of the global challenges on its own. It seems right that it should contribute in proportion to the damage it has done and continues to do, and in proportion to its greater resources, but humanity won’t begin to progress until we’ve reached a stage where these distinctions are set aside, and all countries see it as their equal responsibility to contribute equally to making a better, fairer and more stable future for all of us.