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10 Contestants for Earth's Next Superpower

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By Jeff Wilser

These nations have been dismissed as underdogs and weaklings. But like budding superheroes, they’ve been sitting on hidden talents. And now they’re about to fly.

1. FINLAND

SUPERPOWER: INVINCIBLE TEACHERS

If you’re a kid in Finland, you don’t start school until you’re 7 years old. There’s almost no homework until you’re a teenager. You don’t wear a uniform, you can call your teacher by his first name, and you can attend class barefoot if the mood strikes you. It’s always casual Friday, and you spend fewer hours in the classroom than students in the rest of the developed world.

Despite—or because of—this leisurely approach, the Finnish educational system is one of the world’s finest. Finland’s literacy rate is 100 percent. When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administers its standardized reading and math exams to students from around the world, Finnish pupils regularly come out at or near the top.

What makes these results more amazing is that just four decades ago, Finland’s academic record was a mess. In the 1970s, though, the government did something extraordinary to combat lax education: It mandated that every teacher earn a master’s degree, even agreeing to foot the bills for the extra schooling. Teaching’s prestige skyrocketed; becoming a teacher in Finland is now as tough as becoming a lawyer. Only one in 10 primary school applicants makes the cut! Today, the rest of the world is scrambling to follow Finland’s example as its hyper-educated population continues to boost the country’s productivity. Maybe we should all kick off our shoes and learn a few things.

2. NIGERIA

SUPERPOWER: VERY LIQUID ASSETS

At first glance, Nigeria doesn’t look like it’s poised to become a world player. More than 80 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, 40 percent of the country has never been to school, and half of Nigerian women are illiterate. Throw in the growing threat of terrorism in Africa, and the situation looks pretty grim.

That is, until you look deeper. Nigeria has two things going for it: a large population (162 million) and lots of oil. Nigeria says it pumps out 2.53 million barrels of crude every day, which is up there with heavyweights like Kuwait and Iraq. All this oil is cycling cash into the Nigerian economy and minting new tycoons, which probably explains why more than 100 Nigerians have purchased private jets since 2007. Analysts from Pricewaterhouse-Coopers say that if Nigeria can beef up its schools and technology, it could balloon into the world’s 13th largest economy by 2050, nestled between Turkey and Italy. As if that’s not reason enough for unbridled optimism, Nigeria’s president also has the sunniest name of any world leader: Goodluck Jonathan.

3. MONGOLIA

SUPERPOWER: THE GOLDEN TOUCH

Mongolia knows a thing or two about being a superpower. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan united Mongolian tribes and conquered parts of China. His grandson Kublai Khan kept the family business humming and finished the job. But the tables turned when the Ming Dynasty struck back a century later. China continued to keep Mongolia under its thumb until Russia began aiding its independence movement in 1921.

Today, however, Mongolia’s prospects are looking up because the country is literally sitting on a gold mine. The deposit, Oyu Tolgoi, will roar to life later this year and is full of enough precious metals to build several Xanadus; estimates peg the reserves at 82 billion pounds of copper and 46 million ounces of gold—that’s a little less than a third of the gold in Fort Knox. But the riches don’t end there: A second new mine, Tavan Tolgoi, may boast the world’s largest untapped supply of coking coal, a key ingredient of steel.

And there’s no shortage of demand. Mongolia’s neighbors are dying for coal and copper. Both Russia to the north and China to the south have big appetites for construction that will gobble up plenty of steel, and the new mines have investors drooling. Citigroup predicts that over the next 20 years Mongolia will have the highest growth rate of any Asian country, including China. Genghis would be proud.

4. VIETNAM

SUPERPOWER: SAFE HARBORS

A funny thing happened while the global economy was sputtering last decade. Vietnam’s GDP soared by 6 percent per year. As rice paddies have given way to factories, unemployment in Vietnam has plunged to around 4.5 percent.

What’s Vietnam’s trick? It’s ready to work. China’s laborers aren’t as cheap as they used to be, which makes Vietnam a relative bargain for companies that need new factories abroad. Up until now, though, there’s been a tiny problem: roads. Or the lack thereof. While Vietnam has a terrific labor force, its transportation infrastructure is nearly nonexistent. The country has almost no railroads, its highways are clogged, and its largest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, boasts just one airport, which was built before the Vietnam War. Motorcycles and bicycles are popular, and some of its 91 million citizens still travel by rickshaw. What’s the use of cranking out export-ready goods if there’s no convenient way to ship them?

To address the problem, the Vietnamese government is doubling down on investment in infrastructure’s three R’s: railroads, roads, and rivers. Officials are widening highways and building a new airport. There’s a new deep-water port at Cai Mep-Thi Vai with ship-to-shore cranes that will enable companies to haul more inventory out of the country. The investments don’t sound sexy, but they should start bearing fruit. According to consulting firm A.T. Kearney, “Logistics is the only barrier keeping Vietnam from becoming the next China.”

5. SWITZERLAND

SUPERPOWER: NEXT-LEVEL NETWORKING

Switzerland used to be mocked for its lack of innovation. Peaceful, yes. Creative, no. As Orson Welles put it in The Third Man, “In Italy, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Welles wouldn’t recognize today’s Zurich. The UN’s Global Innovation Index ranks Switzerland as the most innovative country on the planet. What stirs these creative juices? The Swiss government has perfected a system that allows academic research to flow from the ivory tower into private companies. The Swissnex network—with offices from Boston to Singapore to San Francisco—is a system of idea hubs, conferences, and networking events that connect lab coats with investors. The program helps academics, artists, and inventors with promising research hook up with private companies that can turn those visions into reality.

Introducing the brainy to the wealthy is paying dividends. Consider what’s happening with the Solar Impulse project, a company that’s designing a solar-powered plane that can fly around the world without using fuel. Think that sounds farfetched? The amazing aircraft has already completed an all-night journey!

6. BANGLADESH

SUPERPOWER: DEMOGRAPHIC SORCERY

Bangladesh is about the size of Iowa and has a larger population than Russia. It’s the most crowded country on the planet; as a result, containable problems often become huge disasters. Floods kill thousands. Infectious diseases can sweep through the close quarters.

There also aren’t enough jobs. The country’s main export is knitted clothes, and its GDP is just $743 per capita, less than 2 percent of the United States’. For years, Bangladesh has simply been too crammed to support a viable economy. But thanks to some clever policies implemented by the government in the 1970s, Bangladesh is about to make a major leap.

In 1975, the average Bangladeshi woman was bearing 6.3 children. Only 8 percent of women used contraception, and the population was exploding. All these new babies were cutting an already tiny economic pie into too many slices. So the government got proactive. To combat the baby boom, officials trudged from village to village handing out free birth control to rein in the growth.

The plan worked. The birth rate plummeted to 3.4 children per woman in 1993, and now it sits at a sustainable 2.3. And here’s where the economy comes in. Bangladesh is about to enjoy what analysts call a “demographic dividend.” All those babies born in the 1970s and ’80s are entering their prime working years, but because this generation is supporting only two kids instead of six, the demographic math is finally tilting in Bangladesh’s favor. That spells good news for the economy, and investors have taken notice. No wonder Goldman Sachs named Bangladesh a “Next 11” nation, predicting the country’s ascendance as an economic tiger.

7. NEW ZEALAND

SUPERPOWER: VANISHING RED TAPE

Let’s say you’re starting a new company. In the United States, you’ll need to conquer a punishing stack of forms for the IRS, labor boards, and state and federal agencies. By the time you’re finished with your 1040, Schedule C, and Form 720, you’ll feel like you’re choking on red tape.

In New Zealand, things are different. The government created a one-stop shopping approach for new businesses. Every form, application, and license an entrepreneur needs is part of a unified online portal. The info feeds into a single shared database, which further slices down processing time. Even for the offline hassles of starting a business, all the relevant agencies are physically clustered together, trimming even more bureaucratic fat. So far, 83 countries have similarly streamlined, but New Zealand is still the king, which is why Forbes placed it at the top of its Best Countries for Business rankings. With so little paperwork, what’s to stop you from starting your own Hobbit-themed diner that serves only second lunch?

8. TAIWAN

SUPERPOWER: OMNISCIENT DOCTORS

Back in 1995, Taiwan’s health care system was broken. Nearly half the country was uninsured, and citizens weren’t as healthy as they should have been. So the government turned to Harvard economics professor William Hsiao to gut the system and start fresh. Hsiao adopted a universal coverage model similar to Canada’s, but his more revolutionary innovation was small enough to fit in patients’ wallets.

If you lived in Taiwan, you would carry a digital card that keeps track of your medication, test results, medical history, and relevant records. Anytime you went to the doctor, you would just pop the card into a computer without cobbling together paperwork from all your hospitals and specialists. Not only is the system blissfully convenient for patients, but it helps doctors and hospitals get paid faster with less waste while reducing their billing and clerical expenses.

In 2009, Taiwan’s administrative costs for health care were just 2 percent of overall expenditures. To put that in perspective, slashing American health care’s administrative costs to 2 percent would save more than $100 billion over 10 years. The Taiwanese system saves even more money by helping regulators pinpoint fraud more readily. National health care may be a contentious debate in the U.S., but if there’s one thing the left and right can agree on, it’s that less paperwork is better.

9. LATVIA

SUPERPOWER: ENCHANTED FORESTS

In Latvia, every day is Arbor Day. As possibly the greenest country on Earth, more than 40 percent of Latvia is covered in forests, and all this thick vegetation makes it a net reducer of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not just woodlands either. Latvians have nearly stopped importing coal. They’re heavy recyclers who create Europe’s smallest amount of waste per person. And the capital, Riga, is one of the continent’s cleanest cities.

Even with such impeccable credentials, Latvia decided to up the environmental ante. In 2010, the state forest department launched a sprawling media campaign that called on all citizens to plant even more trees. To help boost volunteerism, the ad campaign targeted students, teachers, families, companies, and Latvian musicians. The government distributed free packets of seed and launched an interactive website where citizens could post videos of their plantings. It also held tree-sowing events throughout the year to sustain the buzz.

By the end of the campaign, Latvians had planted 2,278,234 firs, pines, and oaks, just over one tree for every Latvian. Best of all, the cleanliness hasn’t held back Latvia’s business. After having a hard time during the recent global collapse, the country enjoyed strong growth in 2011 and 2012. As countries around the world scramble to kick-start their economies while remaining green, they’ll be looking at Latvia to lead the way.

10. CHILE

SUPERPOWER: A THRIVING METAL SCENE

Pipes, computers, motors, and your microwave all have one thing in common: They’re made with copper. Gold and diamonds may get all the publicity, but copper makes the world go round. And lucky for Chile, it’s got about a third of the planet’s copper supply. It just needs a way to dig it up.

The Chilean government knows that leveraging this copper could transform its economy into a juggernaut. So President Sebastián Piñera’s administration is pouring investments into the country’s mines. The first big project: converting the world’s largest copper mine, Chuquicamata, from an open pit into a safer, more efficient underground mine. (Open-pit mines become unprofitable once miners dig too deep, as trucks have to drive miles up and down for each load of metal and are prone to collapse.)

Converting the mine should extend its life by 50 years, while helping to improve safety and profitability. Che Guevara may be rolling in his grave—Chuquicamata is the very mine he criticized in 1952, sparking his activism—but that same tantalizing copper reserve led Bloomberg analysts to rank Chile as the world’s number eight emerging market. Once Chile taps that copper, they’ll be making a lot more than pennies with it.

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10 Facts About Ernesto 'Che' Guevara
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Keystone/Getty Images

Far more than just an image on a dorm room wall, Ernesto Guevara was a 20th-century Renaissance man. He was a doctor, political philosopher, diplomat, military strategist, and best-selling author who challenged the capitalist status quo with words and gunfire.

Born into middle-class comfort on June 14, 1928, Guevara was introduced to left-wing theories at a young age, thanks to his parents and the radical books in their home library. His Marxist thinking was also profoundly shaped by his encounters with abject poverty throughout South America, and he would eventually convert those thoughts to revolutionary actions in Cuba and beyond. Here are 10 facts about the man known as Che.

1. HE WAS PART IRISH.

Che’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was Patrick Lynch, who emigrated from Ireland to what is now Argentina in the 1700s. His father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, has been quoted as saying, "The first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels." The other side of the family was Basque; according to Guevara’s brother Juan, their father was drawn to the rebellious elements of both sides of the family tree, but particularly appreciated the Irish love of a good party. In 2017, Ireland’s postal service, An Post, issued a stamp commemorating Che using Dublin artist Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic red, black, and white image of the revolutionary.

2. HE WAS PASSIONATE ABOUT PLAYING RUGBY.

His parents were members of the San Isidro rugby club, for which Che played scrum-half in his youth. In 1951 he published his own magazine dedicated to the sport, called Tackle. The only problem with playing? He suffered from asthma his entire life. His father tried to convince him to quit the sport because of it, but Che responded, “I love rugby. Even if it kills me one day, I am happy to play it.”

3. HE LOVED POETRY.

Because of his asthma, Che was home-schooled, and it was there that he was first introduced to the poetry he would come to love for the rest of his life. At his death, he was carrying a weathered green book of poetry that he’d copied by hand, featuring work from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. He was also a fan of Walt Whitman, John Keats, and more.

4. HIS NICKNAME COMES FROM A DIALECTICAL TIC.

Short, sharp, and memorable, Che is also an Argentine interjection that Guevara used so often his Cuban compatriots branded him with it. It’s a filler word, something like saying dude, mate, or pal. If he’d been Canadian, his nickname might have been Eh.

5. HE STUDIED MEDICINE.

Influenced by his struggles with asthma, Che enrolled in Buenos Aires University to study medicine in 1948. After graduating as a physician in 1953, he did an internship at Mexico City's General Hospital, where he carried out allergy research, but left in 1955 to join Fidel and Raul Castro’s Cuban Revolution as their doctor.

6. TWO TREKS SHAPED HIS EARLY POLITICAL IDENTITY.

During his time studying medicine, Che embarked on two trips through South America—a solo journey in 1950 on a motorized bicycle and an 8000-mile trek that started on a vintage motorcycle with friend Alberto Granado in 1952. On these trips, he saw intense poverty and the exploitation of workers and farmers. After witnessing “the shivering, flesh-and-blood victims of capitalist exploitation,” Che was determined to fight the system. His account of his second journey, first published in Cuba in 1993 as The Motorcycle Diaries, became a New York Times bestseller and a critically acclaimed 2004 film.

7. A COUP HARDENED HIS VIOLENT STANCE AGAINST THE UNITED STATES AS AN IMPERIALIST POWER.

Che settled in Guatemala in 1953 partially because he approved of the way the country’s president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, had redistributed land to peasants—a move that angered the country's elite and the powerful U.S.-based United Fruit Company. That same year, a CIA-backed effort forced the democratically elected Arbenz from power. A ruling junta elected the right-wing Castillo Armas to the presidency, and then restored United Fruit Company’s land. Che was radicalized by the event, and it was the first time he participated directly in revolutionary activities, fighting with a small group of rebels (unsuccessfully) to retake Guatemala City.

8. HE WAS HEAD OF THE NATIONAL BANK IN CUBA.

Che Guevara during the battle of Santa Clara
Che Guevara during the battle of Santa Clara in Cuba
Keystone/Getty Images

Following Castro’s revolution, Guevara was given important positions related to finance and the economy, and named President of the National Bank in 1959. That gave him an unparalleled amount of power to direct the country’s economy, which he used to try to reduce Cuba's dependence on sugar exports and trade with the United States in particular. He also made his disdain toward money itself known by signing Cuba’s notes simply as Che.

9. HE ASSISTED IN ARMED REVOLUTIONS IN THREE COUNTRIES.

Che is most famous for his central role in the Cuban revolution, but he also worked to export their model to other countries. In the cases of Bolivia and the Congo, that involved engaging directly in armed revolution in the mid-1960s. He also traveled to the United States, and addressed the United Nations in 1964 in an hour-long speech that criticized the UN itself as well as the United States’ treatment of black Americans.

10. HIS REMAINS WERE MISSING UNTIL 1997.

Che was captured by CIA-assisted Bolivian troops in 1967 while trying to foment revolution in Bolivia, and was executed the next day on the orders of that country's president. They cut off the revolutionary's hands post-mortem to prove his identity before dropping his body in a mass grave with other guerrilla fighters. It wasn’t until 28 years later that Bolivian General Mario Vargas told biographer Jon Lee Anderson that Che’s body was buried near the airstrip in Vallegrande, prompting a massive search. A corpse was uncovered in July 1997 that experts said matched Che's description, in part thanks to its lack of hands and the pipe tobacco found in a jacket pocket. Che was reburied in Santa Clara, Cuba, at the base of a giant statue depicting his likeness.

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Why Macedonia Is Getting a New Name
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iStock

For the first time since becoming an independent nation in 1991, the Republic of Macedonia is rebranding itself. As CNN reports, the Balkan nation will soon be called the Republic of Northern Macedonia, a name change that will hopefully help to heal the country's tense relationship with Greece.

Macedonia adopted its former title after gaining independence from Yugoslavia 27 years ago, and the name immediately caused conflict. Its neighbor to the south, Greece has a region of its own called Macedonia. Greece claimed that Macedonia's name suggested a sense of entitlement to territory that belonged to them and took it as an insult.

Even decades later, the bad blood stirred by the decision remained. Greece's issue with the name has even prevented Macedonia from joining the European Union and NATO. The new title, which was agreed upon by Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras on June 11, is meant to be a step towards better relations between the two countries.

"Our bid in the compromise is a defined and precise name, the name that is honorable and geographically precise—Republic of Northern Macedonia," Prime Minister Zaev said at a press conference, as reported by Reuters. Macedonia will hold a popular vote to officially change the name in a referendum later this year.

A country changing its name isn't uncommon, but reasons for the revision vary. In April 2018, the country formerly known Swaziland announced it would be called eSwatini, the name it went by prior to British colonization.

[h/t CNN]

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