We’re used to our media feeding us narratives in terms of black and white. The world has good guys and bad guys, and it’s as simple as that. While those countries that earn the ‘bad’ label frequently do do some terrible things, reality is waaay more nuanced than our media lets on. Here are ten surprisingly good actions by countries many would consider our ‘enemies’.
10. Cuba Led the World in Fighting Ebola
Ruled by one of the few Marxist dictatorships still in existence, Cuba has long been a handy villain for those who forget the Cold War ended years ago. It’s true that the country has a fairly shady record where freedom of speech is concerned. But there’s at least one area where it’s been an unconditional force for good. Cuba led the world in fighting Ebola.
Cuba has one of the best healthcare systems on Earth. Since the US Embargo, it’s made a habit of indulging in something called ‘medical diplomacy.’ This means Havana sends doctors out to the world’s trouble spots as a way of boosting Cuba’s profile. Right now, this island of 11m has close to 50,000 doctors working in 66 countries worldwide. When the Ebola outbreak hit Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, Cuban doctors immediately suited up and went abroad to kick the virus’s ass.
Their response put that of other countries to shame. Around 12,000 Cuban medical staff volunteered and were among the first on the scene – this despite a top Cuban doctor typically earning only $67 a month for their troubles. Their effort was instrumental in stopping the outbreak, and the Cuban delegation were later praised by the UN for their work.
9. Gadhafi’s Libya Helped Fight Apartheid
Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest symbols for peace in the entire 20th century. So it can come as a shock to hear he was pals with notorious despotic murderer Colonel Gadhafi. There was a good reason for this. Gadhafi’s Libyawas one of the only countries in the world to continuously support Mandela in his fight against apartheid.
It’s easy to forget now that Britain and the US once officially considered Mandela a terrorist. They supported the white supremacist regime in South Africa, and people openly displayed ‘hang Mandela’ posters. Gadhafi, on the other hand, backed his African compatriot one hundred percent. While the West was condemning the ANC as “terrorists” dictatorship-era Libya was supplying them with arms, hiding places and funding. Mandela himself considered Gadhafi a true friend of black South Africans, and even supported him in the bloody last days of his murderous reign.
Without Gadhafi’s Libya, it’s possible Mandela’s long walk would have never ended in freedom. Whether that makes up for the ‘mad dog’s notorious human rights abuses is another matter.
8. Russia is a Massive Regional Aid Giver
What with the current crisis in Ukraine, you might be forgiven for thinking ‘Russia aid’ is a euphemism for ‘annexing the eastern part of your country.’ According to Gallup, Putin is this century’s big bad in most American’s minds. However, Russia isn’t an entirely selfish state. For its regional allies, it’s one of the biggest aid givers out there.
Compared to other G8 nations, Russia’s aid budget is stingy. But when the Kremlin chooses to get involved, it makes sure that money counts. In 2009, it basically saved Tajikistan’s vulnerable economy by pumping in tens of millions during the worldwide recession. In 2006, Russian medical aid saved thousands of lives in Central Asia when an influenza pandemic hit.
Fast forward to 2015, and Russia is leading the Central Asian fight against ISIS. The biggest beneficiary has been Kyrgyzstan. A poverty-riddled, ethnically divided country that’s prone to extremist influence, this small state has recently received $1bn from Russia – equivalent to almost a 7th of its entire GDP. Thanks to the Kremlin, stability in the region is looking assured.
7. Venezuela Helped Bring Peace to Colombia (Hopefully)
Since 1964, Colombia has been in a state of constant conflict with Marxist guerrilla group FARC. It’s the longest currently-running war in the world, and one that has cost over 220,000 lives. Yet peace may well be on the horizon. In 2012, the Colombian government and FARC finally met at a negotiating table in Havana. Fast forward to 2015, and peace may be on the verge of being declared. For that, you can thank Venezuela.
Historically one of Colombia’s enemies, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez was consistently accused of funding FARC and giving the rebels hiding places. Then, as the 2nd decade of the new millennium got underway, the old leftwing firebrand seemed to have a change of heart. In late 2012, it emerged that Chavez had been instrumental in getting FARC to the negotiating table.
The importance of this can’t be overstated. Colombia currently has more internally-displaced people than any other country on Earth bar Syria. An end to the decades’ old war would immediately give hope to over 7million people, and improve the lives of everyone in the country. If peace is declared in March (as everyone is expecting), it will be thanks to Chavez.
That’s not to say Venezuela should expect any thanks. Since Maduro took over following Chavez’s death, he’s gone straight back to undermining the Colombian state and generally being a bit of a dick.
6. China is Leading the Fight Against Climate Change
China is more America’s frenemy than an outright bad guy. The countries have some pretty strong differences, but basically need one another. Still, stuff like the Middle Kingdom’s notorious human rights abuses can make it seem like Beijing is far from siding with the angels. Yet there’s one positive area where China is now leading the world. Climate change.
China is the world’s biggest polluter. For years it has resisted attempts to curb its emissions, linking belching refineries with a strong economy. Then earlier this year, everything changed. Out of nowhere, China gave itself some of the strictest climate change targets we’ve ever seen. Already Beijing is following through on them. Over $90bn has been invested in clean energy, compared to $52bn for the US. If the program keeps up, China will be leading the way for industrializing nations that want to tackle climate change.
The reason for this may be more pragmatic than Beijing suddenly going all green and eco-friendly. Many of China’s cities are choking under lethal clouds of smog. Still, with a problem as big as climate change, it’s less the ‘why’ the matters than the ‘what’.
5. Pakistan Takes a Stupid Amount of Refugees
The United States takes more refugees than any other country on Earth, with over 3million currently residing within its borders. On a per-capita basis, Jordan is the current refugee haven, thanks to a massive influx from Syria. But one of the other greatest refugee-taking nations on Earth might surprise you. It’s not Germany, or Sweden, or anywhere in Europe or North America. It’s Pakistan.
By most measures, Pakistan is a worrying place. Human rights violations are extremely frequent in the country, and it’s long been thought that Islamabad supplied North Korea with the technology to make its first nuclear bomb. Still, when it comes to refugees, they’re clearly among the good guys.
Since the war began in Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan has seen over 3.8million Afghan refugees cross its borders. As of 2015, it remains home to 1.5 million – a figure the UN High Commission for Refugees calls “the largest protracted refugee population globally.” Although it hasn’t all been plain-sailing, the UNHCR seems to think Islamabad is doing a good job. The government has given Afghanis Proof of Registration cards, issued 800,000 birth certificates for Afghan children born in the country, built special refugee villages, and given refugees access to schools and healthcare.
4. Zimbabwe Has Set Educational Records
Under Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has gone from being a strong economy to an absolute basket case. Inflation is rampant, unemployment soaring and life-expectancy shockingly low. Like many dictators, Mugabe has enriched himself to the detriment of his countrymen while employing violence to keep himself in power. Yet there’s one area where Zimbabwe as a country can be proud of itself: education.
In recent years, Zimbabwe has achieved the highest literacy rate on the African continent. Around 90 percent of its population can read and write – a rate that would put some European countries to shame. Elementary school attendance is incredibly high, with nearly 90 percent of children attending classes. To call this an achievement would be an understatement. Many richer countries have far less-educated citizens.
There’s also an additional bonus to Mugabe’s expansion of education. The political scientist Masipula Sithole used to say that by educating his countrymen, the president was “digging his own grave.” Hopefully we’ll live to see Mugabe forced from power yet.
3. Communist Albania Drastically Improved Women’s Rights
Under Marxist dictator Enver Hoxha, Cold War Albania was doing hermit-like isolationism before even North Korea. Under his rule, Albanians were forbidden to leave the country, nearly everyone else was forbidden from entering, and you could get a visit from the feared secret police just for having a beard. Yet there is one area where Albania was undeniably making the world a better place. Under Hoxha it was committed to spreading women’s rights.
Before Communism came to town, Albanian society was intensely patriarchal. Women had zero rights, were barred from working or participating in politics, and were given the same legal protections as objects. Then equality-minded Marxists took control, and immediately set about liberating the sisterhood. Under Hoxha’s watch, women were emancipated and socially liberated, given government jobs and generally brought into the modern world. As a result, today Albania has better legal protections for women than some other Balkan countries. It might not quite make up for the Stalinist torture centers of Hoxha’s heyday, but credit where it’s due.
2. Saudi Arabia is Surprisingly Humanitarian
As a country that still practices crucifixion, Saudi Arabia doesn’t often feature in the same sentence as the word ‘humanitarian’. Right now, the Wahhabi Kingdom is causing a human rights disaster in Yemen and has been accused of funding regional terrorism – including groups linked to ISIS. Yet there’s a bright side to this petrodollar-fuelled medieval kingdom. Saudi Arabia is consistently one of the world’s highest givers in foreign aid.
The Kingdom gives over $1bn annually, including huge chunks for humanitarian assistance and UN peacekeeping missions. It’s consistently ranked in the top 20 countries for giving, and in 2012 gave even more than many European countries. According to a Guardian data blog, Saudi Arabia gives even more than Belgium and Italy.
So where does all this funding go? Well, it’s mostly to long-term aid recipients; countries in sub-Saharan Africa and other trouble spots. In short, it goes to people who really need it.
1. Serbia is Basically Awesome
Thanks to its actions in the 1990s, Serbia’s name is still seen by some as a synonym for ‘evil’. In Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, the country’s leaders committed countless war crimes in pursuit of an ethnically pure Serbian super state. There’s no doubt that these actions were horrific in the extreme. Yet there’s another side to the Serbian story, one we hear less frequently. Since the end of the Balkan Wars, Serbia has gone from being the regional bullyboy to the coolest guy in the neighbourhood.
Don’t take our word for it. Only a few months ago, the EU praised Serbia for its handling of the refugee crisis, calling its actions “humane,” a sharp contrast to some other Balkan nations. Then there’s the matter of Kosovo. In 1999, Serbia was so unwilling to part with its restive province that NATO airstrikes were called against Belgrade to stop ethnic cleansing. Today, Serbia is formalizing normal relations with its poorer neighbour and taking steps towards recognizing its statehood. In recent years, Belgrade has even complied with handing over wanted Serbian war criminals. Far from being an international pariah, modern Serbia is seemingly doing everything in its power to make up for past indiscretions.