State of the World: Global Competitiveness 2012 | Ministry of Clever

In this article, the Ministry of Clever takes a closer look at data from the World Economic Forum that illustrates how competitive and how productive each country in the world is. If you ever wondered how your home country performes, then take a look. Perhaps you’ll even be surprised?


People often quip that a picture is worth a thousand words. We can’t say for sure if that is true about graphs as well, but it does tell a lot about the state of our home planet. We’ll give you some hints below, but first we’ll teach you how to fish for facts. Our fish may feed you for a day, but if you learn the ropes, you’ll be fed for a lifetime. So then, to business:

  • On the x-axis (that’s the one that goes from left to right) we have the GDP per capita, a measurement of how much value each country produces, divided by the number of inhabitants in that country. While it says nothing about who ends up with this money, generally a higher value means more cash to spread around – and a wealthier country.
  • On the y-axis (going up and down) is the Global Competitiveness Index, a measurement by the World Economic Forum showing how well each country is able to compete against others. It tells us something about how well the country is able to compete with other countries – basically how “fit” it is, and how well it will be able to cope with whatever crisis may crop up.
  • The colour going from blue through green to red tells us how developed the country is. A highly developed country is warm red, while an undeveloped country is cold blue. Note how more developed countries tend to have both higher GDP per capita and competitiveness index. It may come as no surprise: well developed nations are more likely to be wealthy and more likely to be competitive
  • The size of each blop shows the population of each country. Many competitive countries are tiny. They may be power houses, but they’re very small power houses.
  • Finally, the timeline on the bottom allows us to see how these values develop over time. Not such a long time frame here – just from 2008 to 2011, so we won’t see much change. But it’s there if you wanna play.
  • You may hover your mouse pointer over each country blop to see the actual value of this country. Try it out! If you click on the bottom right link you can go to Google’s own tool and explore in even more depth, or you can go to the World Economic Forum’s own pages and read more about this study.

So – what can we learn from this figure?

Developed countries tend to be much more competitive. The top ten are (in declining order): Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden, Finland, The United States of America, Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, Japan and The United Kingdom. They are all well functioning, stable democracies, and can roughly be put in one of two boxes: the old “Great Powers” (The USA, The UK, Germany and Japan) and nordic countries (Sweden, Finland and Denmark). Naturally, the old great powers have most of the population of these competitive nations – the nordic countries are fierce, but small.

If we move on to the GDP per capita, the top ten (again in descending order) are: Luxembourg, Norway, Qatar, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Australia, Sweden, The USA and The Netherlands. Note how many are in both lists and that all but one of the rest (Norway, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) are major oil exporters. Luxemburg and Switzerland are known as banking and finance industry havens, but these are not their only strengths. As you can see below, other strengths of Switzerland include beautiful mountains and weird music:

Some well developed countries have fallen behind the pack, and among them we find countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and (all the way down there) Greece. That’s four of the five so-called PIIGS-countries, infamous for the still ongoing European sovereign-debt crisis. If you look a little further to the right, you’ll find the last I, Ireland, together with Iceland, who recently had an economic crisis of their very own.

All the way to the left (near the bottom of the GDP per capita scale) we find a throng of “third world” countries. Some are developing while others are not. At best they’re moderately competitive, but still poor. With time, some luck and lots of hard work, some should improve. Unfortunately, if we look at the timelapse we get the impression that these things take unpleasantly long time.

India and China are the huge blobs near the top of these countries. They still do not produce very much per capita, but make up for it by having very, very many citizens. If you look at the time series, China is going up quickly in competitiveness, but not so quickly on the GDP per capita scale.

This figure shows the same countries, but instead of GDP per capita, the x-axis now shows total GDP – the total production of each country. Notice how The United States still occupy the far right of the graph – they are clearly still the king of the hill. The other “high score”-countries, especially the nordic ones, are all the way to the left in this figure. As you may have guessed already, they don’t have many people living there. The Nordic countries especially have very productive inhabitants, there’s just not that many of them living there.

Now: play the time series animation on this graph, and you’ll see what’s got the Americanos spooked. Do you see that greenish blob moving fast from the left to the right? That’s China. They recently overtook Japan as the country with the second highest GDP, and they’re racing quickly towards the US at the top of the hill. According to most experts it’s a question of when not if China will take the place of the United States as the world’s most productive country.

Even when China dethrones the United States in the not so distant future they’re still bound to have a lower GDP per capita than the current top countries. They might be the “runner-up” (in more ways than one) – and the Chinese people will likely be much better off – but even then, they will still have a long way to go before they are as productive as “the Westerners”. So if you’re a worried inhabitant in one of the top nations, you may envy their growth, but don’t envy their wealth just yet. You’re still likely to live a better life (or at least a more productive one) in the forseeable future.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17

State of the Earth: Looks pretty blue-white still, from up there.

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