When is a country not a country?

One of the first challenges I had to face when starting to prepare for my project to read a book from every country in 2012 was to decide exactly what I meant by ‘country’. Having grown up in the UK, where there’s always someone talking about making a bid for independence – whether it’s Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Yorkshire or some of the feistier parts of south-east London – I had an inkling that this might be trickier than it first appeared.

But it wasn’t until I typed ‘number of countries in the world’ into Google that I realised quite what I was letting myself in for.

There are a lot of conflicting answers to the question. The UN has 193 members. There will be 205 countries represented at the London 2012 Olympic Games. And all in all there are at least 258 national flags in the world today (see the video below, which has 257 of them apart from the one for South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which declared independence from Sudan in July 2011).

Then there are the stateless nations, like the Kurds, who define themselves as a separate group but don’t have a territory to call their own. I’m not sure if anyone has counted these up, but I get the impression that the number of these depends on where you stand.

A lot of the issues have to do with the definition of what we mean by a sovereign state. As set out in the Montevideo Convention, sovereign statehood essentially boils down to having a permanent population, defined borders, a government and dealings with other states. You’re a state if you say you are and the people in and around you agree. But as the nightly news will tell you, this is often not as simple as it sounds.

The list I’m working from now comprises all UN-recognised countries plus Palestine and Taiwan. When I started the project, I was using what seemed to be the most universally accepted list of sovereign states out there. This included all UN-recognised countries, plus Kosovo. I took the liberty of adding Taiwan to this because it used to be a member of the UN and still maintains relations with many countries. This gave me a grand total of 196.

However as the project went on, I realised the list I’d been using was actually based on states recognised by Western countries such as the US. Given that this is a global project, this seemed a little wonky.

So I decided to change the world (there’s a phrase I’ve always wanted to write) and use a list of states with some degree of recognition (past or present) from the UN as a more global barometer of statehood. Counting permanent observer and ‘non-member entity’ Palestine and Taiwan, this came to 196 too and in practice only meant swapping Palestine for Kosovo on the list.  So this is what I did – not purely to save myself work, but also because as far as I could see recognition by this global organisation was one of the clearest and most universally agreed upon definitions of countryhood around.

It’s by no means a perfect system though and it will mean odd omissions from my list, like Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, both of which, despite having quite distinct cultures and histories are technically territories of other states. Still, it’s the best I’ve got to go on for now. And it will certainly keep me busy.

Please do keep the suggestions of titles coming – I’m going to need all the help I can get!

This post was updated on 10 June 2012 to reflect my decision to include Palestine in Kosovo’s stead on the list.