In praise of small countries

The central government buildings in Windhoek, which remain almost entirely the same as during the time of South African overrule.

I’ve just visited Namibia, and really enjoyed the experience, despite mild official harassment for being a journalist. I had a very strong sense of it being a smoothly functioning nation, which is particularly notable for its being lodged in Africa, and having recently been prone to serious attempts at plunder and depredation by Germany and South Africa.

The capital, Windhoek, is neat and clean, far cleaner than many European cities.

Then I stumbled on this article in the New York Times, which tells us San Marino (pop. 30 000) has only one prisoner, giving it the world’s lowest incarceration rate.

The Guardian publishes a wonderful article on Iceland, which in turn sounds like a remarkable place: happy people, well-developed health system, successful movement away from oil-based energy to renewable energy over the last 50 years, no standing army for the last seven hundred years.

What about Costa Rica, which has, like Iceland, abandoned a standing army, and resolutely resists exploitation of its oil resources, avoiding the dismal fate of other petrocracies?

Clearly, small states work very well. When society is so closely knit that citizens and politicians work practically alongside each other, it’s difficult for the former to feel too awed, or the latter to feel too self-important. Namibian politicians were, in my brief experience, remarkably self-deprecating, commenting on the tedium of their own speeches, and addressing (with merciful brevity), a conference dinner gathering with words along the lines of, “Ladies and gentlemen, ambassadors, and everyone who’s been elected.”

The same proximity makes for administrative efficiency. Walking into Namibian Home Affairs, one discovers that the minister’s office is in the same drab corridor as the clerks who issue visas. No South African minister would deign to share such modest accommodation. (Though, it must be admitted, the Namibian government has recently constructed a large new official residence for the president, State House, a vulgar monstrosity on a Windhoek hilltop – which the president is rumoured to be reluctant to actually occupy.)

That’s what we need, a world of small, happy states, flying under the radar. Let’s tear down the borders and throw up thin fences, and celebrate the micro-state. After all, small states are what democracy was “designed” for.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
This entry was posted in Democracy, Going greener, Human rights. Bookmark the permalink.

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