What a post-Covid world could learn from small countries

Title cover of James Breiding's book.

In a global political system where size and power often come hand-in-hand, James Breiding flips the script and puts the spotlight on the successes of smaller nations. In his latest book, “Too Small to Fail: Why Some Small Nations Outperform Larger Ones and How They Are Reshaping the World”, the Swiss-American businessman and author takes an interest in how countries such as Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland are beginning to reshape the policies emerging in the world today.

Why bigger doesn’t always mean better. Taking a deep dive into the data, Breiding found that in many fields such as social cohesion and inequality, there seems to be no advantage to country size. “Economies of scale” do not always make sense. For example, he cites Singapore as having the best education system, even though it is the country that invests the least per capita in education of all OECD countries.

What makes smaller countries different? Apart from their size, there are certain factors that are not taken into account in measures of national competitiveness rankings such as those of the WEF, IMD, or the World Bank. Here are some of them:

  • Vulnerability generates a greater capacity to respond to different kinds of threats — whether it's the floods in the Netherlands, Napoleon's grip and Hitler's threat a century later in the case of Switzerland, or the possibility of nuclear warheads 30 minutes away from Iran as in the case of Israel.

  • They tend to be more experimental and willing to try new things at the individual, business, and government levels, as they are forced to adapt to new circumstances.

  • They also seem to foster closer social ties. Trust is tested more often in places where relationships are tighter.

  • Finally, they are well-connected with the world. With changes happening in a more globalized context, those sensitive to the international community often have a considerably greater advantage.

Responding to Covid-19. So far, in terms of key indicators such as deaths per capita and unemployment rates, smaller countries have, on average, fared better in the crisis. Breiding points out that the pandemic has shown the countries’ willingness to experiment, as seen in the variety of policy responses — like Singapore’s quick and aggressive testing and tracing efforts. Though it’s too early to deliver a verdict, the creativity exhibited by these countries in a crisis is very instructive.

Reshaping the new world. With challenges becoming more global, Breiding looks to increasing the influence these small countries have on policies, for instance by co-founding the initiative “S8 Nations”.

“Many of our biggest problems are common. Shared solutions are therefore an obligation,” says Breiding. “This is not a Wuhan, New York or Geneva virus, but a global virus. The same goes for global warming, immigration, data, and even the way we are informed.”

He remains optimistic about the role that small nations can play:

“None of these nations is perfect, but each of them offers us lessons in one way or another. The purpose of this book is to encourage people to look beyond their borders and discover these benefits for themselves.”

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Heidi.news — Les leçons des petits pays pour le monde d’après (23 June 2020)