How can you rank historical aggressors and colonial powers so high?

The Good Country Index cannot be, and does not attempt to be, a historical overview of each country's contribution to humanity and the planet. It can only focus on a single point in time, or else the data becomes overwhelming. Consider: it took a small team of volunteer statisticians and researchers two years to collect, verify and process the 2010 data for 125 countries which underpinned the first edition of the Good Country Index. If we had also included 2009, that might easily have taken another two years. To include 2008 would have taken us six years ... and so on.

And good global statistics of the kind we're using only go back a couple of decades anyway, so to examine, measure and account for the roots and causes and origins of today’s world would be a 99% subjective exercise.

Of course, understanding a country also means understanding its history: as George Santayana said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But how would we even begin to put a reliable numerical score on the past actions of 160+ countries, no matter how strong our feelings and opinions about them might be?

Exactly how many points should we take away from the Germans of today for the Holocaust, two generations after the crimes of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents? And why go back a mere eighty years, and randomly draw the line there? Does the fact that older crimes have faded from our memory somehow also mean that their moral significance has faded? I don't think so. How many points should we deduct from Britain for the British Empire, or from India for its own Chola Empire six hundred years earlier? How many points should we give the Greeks for their country’s contribution to human wisdom two thousand years ago, and is it right that present-day Iran should take all the credit for what the Persians achieved five thousand years ago? Do we give more points to the Italians for the poetry of Virgil or deduct more points for the crucifixion of Christ by the Romans? Shouldn’t we penalise the entire Western world for slavery? Is it right to mark down the whole South African nation for the crime of apartheid?

Wherever and whenever we draw the line, we would be guilty of making a subjective choice, and showing prejudice towards some group, nation or individual whose deeds lie just on the other side of that line.

The simple fact is that Man (and I use the term advisedly) is capable of great cruelty, and has demonstrated this over and over again throughout history. Some nations - and to be more fair and more precise - some regimes and some individuals, have done so in particularly egregious ways that humanity cannot and should not forget (but must try to forgive, or else we simply cannot move forwards). Much of that history has already been written, usually from many viewpoints, and if people are interested in finding out about it, the history books are the best starting-point.

These are all discussions which are well worth having, but they can't ever be resolved, and especially not by a relatively simple, entirely unfunded, data-driven index. The Good Country Index can only try to provide a partial answer to one simple question about countries: what are they doing for humanity now? Having an answer to that question is a useful contribution to the discussion, but it certainly doesn't intend to resolve it.

But because that answer is unavoidably incomplete, it's worth asking, as many do: wouldn't it be better not to try to answer at all? Should one indeed refuse to publish any study until and unless it provides a complete account of what it's trying to measure?

Personally, I don't think so. I prefer the approach of publishing something avowedly imperfect, with proper humility, in order to stimulate a discussion, to seek other views, to invite suggestions: in short, to try and improve the index through public debate, rather than try and make it perfect before sharing it. This is why I always answer every communication I receive about the index, and the project has benefited enormously from people's suggestions and criticisms over the past five years.

Those comments and criticisms aren't always as courteous or as well-informed as one might like, but they are always freely given and I work on the assumption that each one may contain useful advice for a better index in the future.