The One Thing That Makes a Country Work — and That the U.S. Will Never Have


I couldn't believe my eyes when I first read the statistics in Jeffrey Gettleman's piece in The New York Times Magazine last weekend: Malaria-related deaths in Rwanda plummeted 85% between 2005 and 2011. And average life expectancy has increased from 36 to 56 years since 1994. While Rwanda's leader, Paul Kagame, may deserve praise for implementing the changes that created these astounding figures, I attribute them to something a bit less remarkable: Rwanda's small size.

Rwanda has a population of approximately 11.5 million people, which is a small enough number that small changes in policy have led to long-term changes that positively effect people's lives.

While Rwanda certainly doesn't have the high quality of life that Denmark (which was once again recently ranked the "happiest country on earth") has, its improvements should be lauded and policy advisers should take note.

When one looks at the list of countries with the highest per capita GDP, small countries come out on top:

1. Luxembourg (population 540,000)

2. Macau (population 590,000)

3.Qatar (population 1.9 million)

Plus, there are some serious advantages to being a small country, specifically when it comes to life expectancy: Among the top 10 countries in this category are San Marino (population 32,000), Singapore (population 5.3 million), Andorra (population 78,000), and Iceland (population 320,000).

When one compares these countries to those with the lowest in life expectancy, it is interesting to note that there are small countries on the very bottom of the life-expectancy list (Swaziland, situated within South Africa, has an extremely high mortality rate based upon the proportion of its population infected with HIV/AIDS), but as a general rule, the smaller a country is, the easier it gets for it to solve its problems head-on.

As USA Today reported, "The world's corrupt nations differ in many ways. Four are located in Africa, three in Latin America, and two in Asia. These nations also vary considerably in size and population. Mongolia has just 3.2 million residents, while Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia are three of the largest countries on the globe, each with more than 100 million people. Based on the percentage of surveyed residents that reported corruption in the public sector is a very serious problem, these are the world's most corrupt nations." One can argue that larger countries have greater bureaucracies, and therefore corruption may be more likely to occur since there are multiple levels of governance. 

While the Nigerian film industry, dubbed Nollywood, makes more than $800 million per year and is the third largest in the world, it is the Danish film industry that interests me more, as it sells 13 million tickets per year, meaning that each of Denmark's 5.5 million inhabitants attends 2.36 films annually. Film and television are industries that can thrive and prosper in small countries. For example, state subsidies have caused the growth of the globally acclaimed Danish film and television industry. Denmark puts out more than its fair share of amazing films and television shows, fueling further growth of the industry.

But let's get back to Rwanda: Yes, having a government that thwarts corruption is certainly important. It is also excellent to have a government that is data-driven in its approach to management. But if Rwanda were bigger, neither of these things would be feasible because of an increased likelihood of corruption, an impossibility of containing problems, and a greater risk of violence.

Will Rwanda continue on its path to become the crown jewel of Africa? I don't know. But its smaller population is certainly something that gives it a fighting chance.