This Is the World's Most Prosperous Nation (Hint: It's Not the U.S.)

According to the U.K.-based Legatum Institute, money isn't everything.
Alesund, Norway. (Photo: Flickr)
Nov 3, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Back in 1993, Wu-Tang Clan introduced the masses to “C.R.E.A.M.”—a hip-hop ode to capitalism that brought the saying “Cash rules everything around me” into pop culture parlance. Twenty-two years later, the good life is still about, as Wu-Tang put it, “dollar dollar bills, y’all.” (If you doubt that, try affording market-rate rent on a minimum-wage salary.)

But according to the Prosperity Index, an annual ranking of 142 countries around the world, in 2015 a real definition of overall well-being is about more than cold, hard GDP.

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So, where are folks truly doing well? Get ready for some Scandinavian chill, because for the seventh year in a row, Norway takes the No. 1 spot—Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden round out the top five.

“The Prosperity Index tells us that human progress goes beyond economics. Norway and other countries at the top of the Index provide opportunity and freedom to their citizens, access to quality healthcare and education, and provide safe environments for people to flourish in,” Nathan Gamester, the director of the Prosperity Index at the London-based Legatum Institute, the creator of the index, said in a statement.

(Image: Courtesy

The institute analyzed data from 13 globally recognized sources that cover 96 percent of the world’s population, including the Gallup World Poll and the World Development Indicators from the World Bank. They broke down data into eight categories: Economy; Education; Entrepreneurship & Opportunity; Governance; Health; Safety & Security; Personal Freedom; and Social Capital.

Norway takes the top spot in part owing to the amount of freedom it offers residents and the quality of its health care system. It also doesn’t hurt that new moms in Norway can take up to 46 weeks off from work after having a baby and receive their full salary. Norway also gets a boost from the strength of its Social Capital ranking, which analyzes networking and strong relationships between people, factors generally associated with prosperity.

Meanwhile, the five least-prosperous nations in the index are Burundi, Chad, Haiti, Afghanistan, and the Central African Republic. Those countries score poorly on most indicators but especially suffer when evaluated according to the Safety & Security category. Other war-torn nations in the Middle East, such as Yemen (ranked 135th) and Syria (ranked 136th) don’t fare much better.

How are things looking in the United States? Overall, the U.S. is in 11th place. You can click on the infographic below to dig into the U.S. rankings across all eight categories.

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Similar to the African and Middle Eastern nations at the bottom of the Prosperity Index, the U.S. ranks 33rd in Safety & Security. Roughly three-fourths of U.S. residents don't feel safe walking alone at night, and the high levels of gun violence and incidences of police brutality also don't help.

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The United States is “the only Western country to register high levels of state-sponsored political violence,” and “according to Amnesty International the country has the same level of political violence as Saudi Arabia,” wrote the Prosperity Index’s authors.

Concerns about the economy and democracy are also on the minds of people living in the U.S. Only 52.6 percent of residents believe now is a good time to find a job, and a staggering 68 percent of people believe government and business corruption is widespread. But on the bright side, 90 percent of U.S. residents can rely on others in a time of need.

There are signs of hope when the rankings from the 2009 Prosperity Index are compared with the 2015 rankings. Sure, horrific wildfires are raging in Indonesia, but over the past seven years, the Southeast Asian country has jumped 21 places, up to No. 69 this year.

(Graph: Courtesy

The jump is attributed in part to significant improvements in the economy and an increase in the number of folks with Internet access. The number of people satisfied with their living standards has risen from 63 percent to 71 percent.

Rwanda has also risen 17 places in the Prosperity Index rankings, up to the 101st spot. Although the country lags in the Entrepreneurship & Opportunity category, when it comes to governance, it is better off than the U.S.—just 7.6 percent of people there believe government and business corruption is widespread.

Legatum's definition of prosperity seems to be similar to that of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which released its annual Better Life Index of the 36 wealthiest nations in the world in October. A nation's GDP, health care, education, and work-life balance were just some of the factors that the OECD took into consideration. Australia took the top spot in that list; Norway came in second.

Overall, Legatum's Prosperity Index "shows that the world is becoming more prosperous, but ominous developments suggest that this cannot be taken for granted,” said Gamester. Some things, such as people in a country believing they can count on each other, can't be bought. As Wu-Tang might rap in 2015: Cash doesn't rule everything around global prosperity.