Ask the Expat
Quality of Life Overseas
By Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Editor
People move abroad for a variety of reasons; for work, study, retirement, business, etc. But what most of us have in common is ultimately the search for a better quality of life and the type of experience that we would not be able to have at home. Figuring out which foreign country best matches our lifestyle and interests is no easy task, but if you are a bit methodical in your selection process it should not be too difficult to narrow down the number of countries. Quality of life means different things to different people, so before selecting a destination you should determine what is important to you.
Which Qualities Are Most Important to You?
Is safety an important issue, a pristine natural environment, a good public education system, a low cost of living, or some other primary consideration? Once you figure out the nature of the quality of life you would wish your host country to provide it will be much easier to narrow down the number of countries of interest. But there are so many aspects of daily life in a foreign country that it is difficult to prioritize. For example, should you choose safety over a pleasant climate or a good public health system over a low cost of living? These are difficult choices to make, but if you do not mind doing a little bit of research there are several studies and surveys about the quality of life in cities and countries all over the world that can help you with your decision-making process.
Surveys on the Quality of Life Overseas
Among the best-known surveys is the annual “Quality of Living Ranking” by Mercer Consulting, which covers 215 cities and is conducted to help governments and major companies place employees on international assignments. The survey is based upon 39 different factors, including important criteria such as the political and social environment, economy, socio-cultural environment, health, education, public services and transportation, recreation, consumer goods, housing, and the natural environment. You can read excerpts from the report at www.mercer.com.
Another survey which I have found useful is the “Quality of life index,” published in 2005 by the Economist Intelligence Unit (www.eiu.com), part of The Economist magazine. Although the survey is somewhat outdated, it is still worth checking out. The index includes data from 111 countries and territories and is based upon nine quality-of-life factors: material wellbeing, health, political stability and security, family life, community life, climate and geography, job security, political freedom, and gender equality. You can read more details about the nature of the index on the Wikipedia website: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quality_of_life_index.
What makes these surveys valuable for would-be expatriates is the fact that they consider a wide variety of vital factors that contribute to the quality of life of the surveyed destinations. When I lived abroad in Europe, South America, and the Pacific, all the survey’s criteria sooner or later played an important role in my day-to-day life. For example, most of us take the availability of consumer goods for granted, but when I lived in the Brazilian Amazon I could not get a replacement hard drive for my Apple computer. I also still remember vividly how courteous the police were in New Zealand when they caught me for the second time speeding on a motorcycle without a driver’s license. I also remember Election Day in Brazil, when all the workers at the coffee plantation I was in managing disappeared for their constitutionally guaranteed day off in order to travel to their home towns where they could vote.
By looking at the various survey criteria you might discover some aspects of living abroad that you had not thought about before. Have you considered crime statistics in your research about your favorite expatriate destinations, political freedom, or gender equality? Taking a close look at the various survey criteria can be very helpful in your own decision-making process, and you will quickly recognize which aspects of life in another country you like best and which factors are most important to you. A country may have a higher crime rate than your home country, but the cost of living and the country’s magnificent natural environment may outweigh this drawback.
If you are interested in digging deeper into statistical figures, you should check out the annual OECD Factbook, published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The publication includes a “Quality of Life” section, with categories that are similar to the other surveys previously discussed, such as health, leisure, society, and transportation. The Factbook (www.oecd.org/) does not include an overall ranking in the same manner as Mercer’s survey, but you can look up the ranking of your country of interest for individual categories.
Author's note: This column has an interactive format, and readers are encouraged to submit questions, suggestions, and commentaries, some of which will be addressed in the upcoming issues of the Transitions Abroad Webzine. If you have questions about living abroad that you would like have addressed, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Volker Poelzl is a frequent contributor to Transitions Abroad.. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.