How many countries are there in the world?

From lowest count to highest, here is the range of differing opinions on what makes a country a country, and more importantly, what counts as a ´real´country.

Although the UN is often the default count for people to believe, its not that clear what their official number is. I´ve seen both 193 and 195, since Taiwan and the Vatican have some strange non-member observer status. Then there´s Kosovo, which over a hundred of those member states recognize, but not the UN body. UNESCO, a branch of the UN, has a member list of 195, including Palestine but excluding the Holy See and Taiwan from the UN list, plus 11 associate members.

This pushes the count up to 206, which the National Olympic Committee also has, but they no longer recognise Curacao, Gibraltar, the Faroe Islands, Macau or New Caledonia. Though they used to be part of the International Olympic Committee, they now have to compete through their parent nations (Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, China, France) though the Faroes and Macao are allowed to athletes as their own in the Paralympics.

FIFA says there are 211 registered football teams in the world from different countries (the UK is split into its 4 countries), excluding some UN countries, since not every country in the world has a national men´s football team (ie. Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Vatican).

Couchsurfing has over 230 countries, and claims to have a registered host in every country in the world. With 2 million users, this is definitely possible, but the truth is its hard to find hosts in countries where the site is illegal, like Iran, where there is only one host, like in Wallis & Futuna, or where the site is nonexistent, like in North Korea.

The highest count is over 300. The Centenary Club, an elite members only group of travelers, counts 327 countries and territories.

If you ask me, the definition of a country isn´t rocket science. If you pass a border or showed a passport, had to apply for a visa, or use a totally different currency and maybe a new language, then you´re probably in a different country. I definitely stand by the fact that every time I went to Greenland, I was not in Denmark, and French Guyana is nothing like France except for the euro currency. I actually think its strangest that everyone can agree to call the Holy See a separate country, but others have more problems with territories and their status. I’m somewhere in the middle, with about 245 countries on my horizon, of which 25 I have left to visit.

The UN in West Africa

It´s a common sight to see white UN jeeps driving around Africa, but I´ve never seen so many as I saw in Abdjan and Monrovia. Im not sure which UN mission is bigger, but they both claim to be the biggest in West Africa, and there are more UN jeeps driving around than unmarked jeeps. They don´t all say “UN” with the big, black, block letters, but some cars are UNICEF, some are with FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization), the World Health Organization, or IMF and the World Bank. All of their offices are in big, guarded buildings, many of them old hotels turned into base camps, and the security for each building would rival that of the US Embassy. In Abidjan, it was normal to see UN trucks driving around with the ´blue helmets,´ armed military personnel who cruise around town enforcing the peace.

Me and my UN FAO couch surf host

Me and my UN FAO couch surf host

There are hundreds of expats working for these organizations, plus alot of other NGO´s and international development projects, so all the white people around town are usually not tourists but living and working or volunteering there. The UN even have their own flights and helicopters to transport them around, so taking public transport or landing with a commercial plane as a white person is a strange sight. When I flew into Monrovia airport, the immigration got really confused that my passport wasn´t a diplomatic one. Its a bright blue colour, so they couldnt figure out how it was a ´normal´ passport and felt very sheepish to ask “excuse me ma’am, is this a regular passport?”

I couchsurfed with a Colombian FAO worker in Monrovia, and a Spanish UN architect in Abidjan, who first applied for his job dreaming to help rebuild a destroyed city after their recent civil war. His colleagues and employers just months before him lived through the unrest and violent attacks, so its still fresh in their minds the risk they take trying to stay and help. I can imagine getting a job with the UN is a major accomplishment, and a scary commitment in many places, but the faces behind these jobs feel less and less noble as time goes on.

Outisde the American embassy

Outisde the American embassy

The Spanish architect realized that he was hired to build temporary homes for the blue helmet base camps, Jordanian and Togolese soldiers living in a large trailer parks he puzzles together. The Colombian started to realize how much money gets wasted in administration and over-paid salaries, and the incompetencies of  the local people hired to work for their people but eventually give into selfish greed, losing touch of any compassion. The UN expats enjoy a Western salary, paying for western-luxury apartments, grocery stores, bars and restuarants built just to exploit them (thanks to the very innovative Lebanese running all of ex-pat West Africa), and spend a lot of time talking and planning for projects that take more resources to execute them than they produce. They drive around the all-expense paid jeeps, drunk or sober, party alot, and become a major contributor to the prostitution industry. I realized that all those agencies and organizations are trying their best to do some good, but if only more people saw the reality of everyday life for ex-pat workers who eventually stop feeling any heroic, good samaritan pride in their jobs. I think it would work so much better if they stopped caging themselves behind gates, security and air-conditioned jeeps, burst out of their expat bubbles, and made some attempt to give up their western comforts to really live and sympathize with Africa. I almost started to worry we do more harm than good, coming in to a country without paying taxes or adhering to their laws, ordering their government around, and dividing the population’s wealth between the have’s and have not’s… besides, ‘enforcing the peace’ doesnt make any sense – isn’t that an oxymoron?