Anatomy: World’s Most Isolated Countries


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From the Spring Issue "Beyond Borders"

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World's Most Isolated Countries

Trapped, and cut off from the world, Daw Aung Sun Sui Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, remained in house arrest intermittently between 1989 and 2010. During those years, the world moved on, but Myanmar’s politics, oppressed by a military regime, stayed dormant. By shutting her away, the regime attempted to limit her influence. Unfortunately, their strategy worked with the nation far more effectively than it did with Aung Sun Sui Kyi. As the Internet spread and globalization accelerated, Myanmar stagnated, and the country sealed off its citizens from easy access to a world of information.

The Anatomy section of the Spring issue of World Policy Journal ranks the top 10 most isolated countries by our own unique metric. To create the list, we looked at five factors: number of countries to which each is connected by plane; percentage of individuals using the Internet; arrivals of international visitors and foreign military personnel; immigrants as a percentage of total population; and imports per capita in U.S. dollars. We further weighted each factor to arrive at our final index ranking.

Internet access was weighted heaviest in our metric, accounting for 30 percent of a country’s overall score. This reflects the evolving nature of what is meant by “connected.” Centuries ago, it meant that your nation was well situated along a trade route or attached by port to the nearest seat of power. Later, a railroad stopping in a principal city assumed more importance. Now, without access to a mobile phone and Twitter feed, you’re isolated from global flows of information and our era’s defining mode of communication. Much of the world might be too remote for personal encounters with large numbers of foreigners, but citizens reading about the outside world, watching videos, or lining up foreign Facebook friends can still learn about what’s outside their borders.

Personal connections, however, remain important. The influx of people into and out of any given place is still the ultimate requirement for information transfer—a reality that’s remained largely unchanged for centuries. To measure this aspect, we combined the raw number of tourist arrivals, foreign military presence, and countries connected by direct flights. To be sure, a foreign military presence and a healthy tourism industry are hardly synonymous. But for this purpose, a foreign military can provide a similar level of, hopefully temporary, foreign exposure—though the means and circumstances may be far from ideal. In Afghanistan, for example, many who have encountered NATO forces might not otherwise have encountered a foreigner of any variety.

As it happens, instability is a common characteristic shared by many countries on our list. Recent coups, civil unrest, even outright war have made development of a viable infrastructure nearly impossible. Violence often leads neighboring countries to sever links and close borders, fearing for their own safety in case a conflict spreads. Today, Syria’s neighbors Turkey and Jordan have reinforced their border controls in response to the escalating flow of refugees. At the same time, violence destroys infrastructure—the airports, roads, and train stations that link people across boundaries.

The index highlights some discouraging situations. North Korea’s recent nuclear test suggest the country will remain as isolated as ever in 2013, potentially even more so with China growing weary of its actions. Another top 10 most isolated country, Guinea-Bissau, has recently witnessed a coup, and is at a statistical risk of another. Finally, the impact of climate change continues to serve as a painful lesson in Niger that isolation alone does not protect it from bearing the brunt of global inaction.

Still there are some bright spots. Somalia and Myanmar—numbers two and three on our most-isolated list—have taken steps recently toward opening up their societies. The full impact of these measures remains to be seen, but over time, the index will disclose their new roles in the world. Already, the United States has reestablished diplomatic relations with both nations. In Somalia, with help from regional partners such as Turkey and African Union troops, the government is strengthening domestic stability. Progress there is still tentative, but it is an improvement from the past.

In Myanmar last year, the Burmese National League for Democracy opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi won all 37 seats in parliamentary by-elections. Their victory represents a drastic and unforeseen shift in the wake of 50 years of oppressive military rule. Moreover, as the government cuts back on restrictions on Internet access, the United States, Europe, and Australia will continue to ease sanctions, and Myanmar will emerge from isolation. Companies and investors are circling the country, waiting to see where the Burmese government takes the country. The next general election won’t be held until 2015 so it’s worth watching how the political dynamics evolve until then.

As Myanmar and Somalia demonstrate, reforms are possible. Opening up a country after years of isolation may sometimes be slow and piecemeal, and at times, it may be illusory and superficial. But over time, the World Policy Journal Isolation Index can be used to help judge the significance of a country's reforms.



Compiled by Carlo Davis, Jared Feldschreiber, and Sarah Lipkis

Designed by Meehyun Nam-Thompson

Text by Robert Joyce

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