For the love of lists


You know those lists that magazines and websites publish about the best or worst, or most expensive, or most dangerous or happiest cities in the world? Well I love them.

For a long time I thought they were actually truthful, or meaningful and could be used as the basis of a reasoned discussion on the absolute merits of, say, Singapore over Luanda, but of course they are no such thing. Leaving aside the futility of actually trying to compare cities in such different countries, climates and political systems in any meaningful way, it turns out that most of these surveys are produced to help international companies work out compensation packages for expatriate staff. As a result they often lend great weight to factors that matter not a jot to those who live there, or alternatively overlook completely things that are central to residents’ contentment and pride.

But even knowing this, I can’t stop enjoying them. Part of it is the self-righteous irritation they engender by so frequently contradicting one another. Rival studies seemingly have no qualms about simultaneously proclaiming Zurich, New York and Singapore as the world’s most expensive city, or Vienna and Melbourne as its most liveable.

Recently a study increased both the vaulting ambition and nonsense factor of such research by presenting a list of the world’s best countries to the World Economic Forum at Davos.

It boasted that its conclusions were the result of ranking 24 categories and consulting 16,000 people. Germany came top, with maximum rating for entrepreneurship, and Canada second with a pat on the head for its quality of life and citizenship. Apparently Brazil ranked very highly for adventure. That must be reassuring for Rio’s favela dwellers who can now view their efforts to avoid gun battles between rival drug gangs as adventurous rather than simply frightening.

But I think maybe the main reason I find these lists compelling is their almost total failure to rank anywhere I have ever lived as either the most, or least, anything and I feel – wholly irrationally – slightly wounded by that. It is odd how personally involved one can become with something so obviously unimportant, but Basel and Nairobi and Lusaka and Tauranga never seem to make the top or bottom five in any category. They just bob along somewhere in the ether in between if anyone bothers to look at them at all.

A couple of years ago when I lived in Basel, one study ranked Zurich and Geneva among the top 10 most expensive cities in the world. I was outraged that they hadn’t sampled Basel too. I wanted to be able to curl my lip at my British friends when they grumbled about the cost of living and tell them that they didn’t know how lucky they were, because I lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and had the survey to prove it.

So you can imagine my delight when I came across a recent headline that claimed Nairobi ranked in the top 20 most successful cities in the world (and top in Africa) for its innovation, liveability and capacity to reinvent itself. I’m not entirely sure how the company behind the survey – Jones Lang LaSalle – managed to reach this conclusion, but suspect that none of its senior people spent any time on its traffic choked roads, or dealing with its corrupt government officials. And when you think about it, what does ‘capacity to reinvent itself’ actually mean? In the end it just made me sad, thinking of the millions of poor who live in squalor and hopelessness in Nairobi, and of the vast and insulting difference between their lives and those of both the kleptocrats that govern them and the smug compilers of this nonsensical report.

Anyway, last week my attention was drawn to an article in the Wall Street Journal, which looked at the impact of collapsing commodity prices on African economies, and specifically on Zambia. It was desperately sad, chronicling broken dreams and failed businesses, and even suicides among mine workers who had lost their jobs.

But it also contained the nugget that Zambia’s Kwacha, which lost half its value last year, is the world’s second worst performing currency, narrowly conceding the top spot to Belarus’ Rouble.

Maybe it’s best just to bob along somewhere in the middle after all.


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