Something Screwy about that Liveability Ranking

International Living has issued its annual ranking of countries as the best places to live. I do not know anything about the site, International Living, which seems to be oriented to selling real estate abroad to American retirees. At least some subscribers have raised questions about whether it is genuinely an informational site as opposed to a fancy Realtor.

My problem is that their annual list of the best places to live seems to get taken seriously, or at least to generate a fair amount of press. And the list is often ridiculous once you get past the European countries at the top (and there are problems there, too). As someone who travels a great deal, I was just left scratching my head.

They give Italy a “100” score for freedom, even though the Berlusconi media empire, combined with his control of state media, raises severe questions about freedom of press there. (I have Italian journalist friends who complain bitterly.) Although they say they follow the Freedom House index, that list does not even put Italy in the tier of full democracies. And this index gives both Italy and Germany a 100 score on safety and security. Look, I enjoy Italy, but it is not as secure as Germany and there are substantial problems in the south.

One could argue over these things. The ridiculous parts come later. For instance, it ranks Mexico higher than Taiwan. You just have to do a double take and say “What?” Again, I like Mexico fine and would go to the ends of the earth for really good mole. But for liveability it just does not compare to Taiwan. Do they mean an American retiree can buy beachfront property in some gated community more cheaply in Baja California? OK, but that is not what they are claiming. They say they are ranking for liveability by things such as security, environment, culture, etc. Mexico’s security has collapsed to the point where you have to think twice about a jaunt over to Tijuana or Juarez from the States for all the drug-related violence. Taiwan is perfectly secure, has a much higher standard of living, and has some of the best cuisine in the world, along with great culture (the national museum is a treasure house), and is making the transition to two-party democracy.

They even rank Namibia and Moldova ahead of Taiwan! That just doesn’t seem plausible to me. The same objections hold for Singapore, which I visited last July and just adored. They are putting Guatamala ahead of Singapore? It is bizarre. Singapore has all kinds of cultural events and festivals, and its museums are very well done. It has a world-class university. Admittedly, who could afford a condo in Singapore? But on most of their criteria, it should be ranked far higher than it is.

Aside from Israel, which is ranked properly if they mean Tel Aviv and ignore security issues, the first Middle Eastern country on the list is Turkey, at 68. Istanbul is one of my favorite places in the world, and I object to Turkey being so far down the list. For culture, for social activities, for music, for relative affordability, it is just daft to rank it below, e.g., Romania or Bulgaria; and Cyprus, while reputedly beautiful, would be the boondocks compared to Istanbul. There are some security issues in the southeast of Turkey, but the big cities are much safer than, e.g., Rio de Janeiro or a number of Mexican cities.

The next Middle Eastern country on the list, Tunisia, is a real gem that I think most Americans do not know much about or appreciate. The beaches are great, the culture Francophone and North African, the food to die for. Being an Arabic speaker, there were things I enjoyed (Andalusian music, Sufi shrines) that your average visitor might not. But the younger generation is learning English, and their predecessors in the middle classes typically have French. Unfortunately there is no political freedom. On the other hand, security is just great. It should be much higher on the list, certainly higher than e.g. Albania or Surinam.

Many of their statistics for Middle Eastern countries are way off. They think that Morocco is more crime-free than Jordan? I appreciate both places and have had positive experiences in both, but on safety there is no comparison. I haven’t been to Peru, but from what I can tell from the outside, Amman is much more pleasant and safer than Lima. But they list Peru, which I think is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, higher than many Asian and Middle Eastern countries that are probably nicer to live in. Amman is sprouting an interesting fusion restaurant scene, art galleries, and other cultural depth that it lacked when I first lived there in 1976.

One thing they got right is that Lebanon, for all its security problems (which declined this year), is among the more desirable places to live in the Middle East– for climate, beaches, skiing, culture, mountains and forests, cosmopolitanism, musical festivals, etc., it is a little gem. The army is beginning to assert itself to provide more security, and if somehow the south could settle down, it would be number one in the region.

Qatar has become very liveable except for the unbearable summers (but then who goes out during the day then?) and should be higher on the list. There is a whirlwind of building, and it is amazingly cosmopolitan. Qatar is changing rapidly and for the better, and they haven’t caught up.

They actually list Gambia as more liveable than the United Arab Emirates. I’ve been to Gambia. I like Gambians. It is a laid back style of life and people tell great stories and are very hospitable. But Dubai it isn’t.

I don’t think this list is a very fair one on the whole, and it doesn’t actually seem to get things such as political freedom or infrastructure or sometimes security right for the global south or sometimes even Europe. It is biased in favor of the Caribbean and Latin America and the former Soviet bloc over Asia and Africa. Given that Asia is carrying the world economy this year, that bias is a 20th century blind spot.

My suspicion is that there is a hidden further column in the compilers’ minds that skews its results, which is whether American retirees would be comfortable living there, and could do so fairly inexpensively. It isn’t really a reliable guide to relative liveability and all the journalists who took its rankings seriously in that regard got snookered.

One thing it did get right is that all the countries George W. Bush put his imprint on are way down at the bottom. So much for the Neocons’ shining cities on a hill.

End/ (Not Continued)

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6 Responses

  1. I think that quality of living by country highly depends of social class.

    As an italian working in an international context (I visit often labs in USA and Switzerland, guess my job :) ) I acknowledge your objections about italy, but I think that for a middle to mittle-high class the tenth place is quite fair. I experience an higher quality of life when I'm in USA with respect to Italy, for sure, but still Italy gives me some comforts over poorer countries like Taiwan or Singapore.

    For a lower class, for example, italy is much better than USA (social state, public health care) on average, but miles under scandinavian countries or even france.

    For a higher class Italy might be even better than Switzerland or Germany (cultural richness, landscape diversity, climate, position).

    Those rankings are not only biased, but also useless. Living standards vary much by country depending on who you are, what's your income and your expectations from life.

  2. In general, I agree completely and only wonder why you drew additional attention to this ridiculous list by writing about it. But I would like to point out that Peru is nowhere near the second poorest country in the western Hemisphere. Haiti, Nicaragua, Guyana, Bolivia, Honduras, Paraguay are all poorer in terms of GDP per capita.

  3. Admittedly, who could afford a condo in Singapore?

    My brother- and sister-in-law. ;) To be honest, while their complex has many amenities those of us in HDB (privately-owned, government-built) housing don't have, I feel that my in-laws gave up a lot, especially in the way of floor space, when they moved to their condo. The better question is not, who can afford a condo in Singapore, but who can afford landed property? ;)

  4. I appreciate the praise for Taiwan (Juan, did you visit here at some point?) and have posted a link on "Forumosa," a message board aimed at foreigners living in Taiwan: link to

  5. I've lived in Taiwan for most of the last twenty years; there's no comparison with Mexico. Even the tiniest hamlets here have ADSL, there are few gun killings and those confined to gangsters fighting over territories, I have walked at all hours in areas from large cities to empty roads in the mountains and never felt fear of mugging, etc. We have one of the best health insurance programs in the world. We're a couple of hours from a great many fascinating travel destinations — I can fly to Laos and spend two weeks there for what it costs to spend three days in Italy, etc. Press freedom, however, has been threatened but is still pretty good, and there is complete freedom of expression. I think you are too sanguine about our democracy — the KMT is moving the island closer to China, which will mean the termination of its democracy if it is annexed — but on the whole this is a much better place to live than all but the most advanced industrial nations. Certainly more so than Namibia or Moldava or Mexico.

    Off to enjoy our year round biking!

    Michael Turton
    The View from Taiwan

  6. India is below Kenya ?! With low culture ranking too !

    For someone with money India is a fabulous place to live. Esp if you are white & rich (i.e. middle income in US) – you can live like royalty.

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