Exemplars in Global Health: Learning from the most successful countries in the world

Much of our recent work at Our World in Data has focused on the Coronavirus pandemic. As in all our work our main question is to ask how the world can make progress against the pandemic. Early on we focused on the fact that there are very large differences in how successfully different countries have responded. Some countries suffered terrible outbreaks and lost tens of thousands of lives while others responded well and limited both the damage to their economies and to their population’s health.

The fact that some countries have been successful in limiting the disease’s impact shows us that an effective response is possible. Studying what these countries did so well allows others to learn from them and replicate these efforts.

This is what we did. Early in the pandemic we teamed up with colleagues from around the world to identify which countries responded well and then to study three of them in depth. We summarized our findings in these three research reports:

This collaboration is part of an ongoing collaboration for a new research platform called Exemplars in Global Health that we started to work on several years before the pandemic.

The idea of Exemplars is to do for global health more broadly what I just described for the current pandemic: to identify which countries are most successful in protecting the health of their populations, to study why they are successful, and to present what we have learned as clearly as possible so that others can adapt what works.

Exemplars in Global Health

If we were to ask the question, “Where in the world people enjoy the best health?” then the answer will be a list of rich countries. Globally we see that in places with higher incomes, living conditions — including health — tend to be much much better.

The chart shows living conditions — measured by twelve metrics — at different levels of income: From top left to bottom right this visualization shows that where GDP per capita is high people live longer; children die less often; mothers die less often; doctors can focus on fewer patients; more people have access to clean drinking water and electricity; they can travel more; have more free time; better access to education and improved learning outcomes; and people are more satisfied with their lives.

The differences across these aspects of people’s living conditions are large. In high-income countries, one in 10,000 births leads to the death of the mother; in low-income countries this is 50-times more common.

For this reason, it remains an important goal to reduce global poverty further.

But the economic growth that turns a very poor country into a rich country is a relatively slow process that stretches out over several decades. That means it is important to ask whether there is anything a country can do that does not require decades-long growth first. What can a country do right now to improve living conditions at their given level of income? The chart here suggests that for many countries there is a lot that they can do: while there is a strong correlation between prosperity and living conditions, we don’t see perfect correlations. At each level of income, there are some countries that do much better than others.

Rwanda, for example, is poorer than Chad but has a child mortality rate that is 3-times lower. Senegal is poorer than Sudan or India, but the share of children that are stunted is less than half.

The fact that some countries are much better than others in turning their prosperity into good living conditions is the starting point for much of the work of Exemplars in Global Health. We don’t only focus on the countries that have the best health outcomes, but we studied countries that delivered very good health outcomes for the income level and recent growth in that country.

The objective of this publication is to allow other countries to learn from these Exemplar countries. This new research publication was prepared over the course of several years and we at Our World in Data have contributed to it since the early days. Now the platform has just launched at

You can find out why some countries do so much better than others in five different aspects: the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, community health workers, vaccine delivery, childhood stunting, and child mortality.

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Max Roser (2020) - “Exemplars in Global Health: Learning from the most successful countries in the world” Published online at Retrieved from: '' [Online Resource]

BibTeX citation

    author = {Max Roser},
    title = {Exemplars in Global Health: Learning from the most successful countries in the world},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2020},
    note = {}
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