Friday, 20 November 2009

A drop-down list of countries

"Please add a drop-down list with countries so that users can select their country from the list"

A seemingly simple request from a client whose website we were building. They are not a political organisation, but the mere inclusion of a country list turns out to be fraught with Politic and Intrigue.

The first problem is determining where to source your data. Depending on who you ask, there are between 192 and 239 countries in the world. The main official sources are at the same time incomplete and over-complete. Further research into the problem reveals a world tour of politics, frustration and behind each of those are personal tragedies … (but I'll spare you the latter for now).

At the time of writing, there are 192 members of the United Nations. This is not a complete list of countries, for it only includes official member states of the UN, and omits territories that actually exist, such as Taiwan (which the UN believes is a province of China), the territory commonly called Palestine (which has UN “observer status” but isn't a UN member state), and Kosovo (which is recognised by at least 60 UN member states but is not a UN member state).

The International Standards Organization under ISO 3166 lists 246 official country names. It includes both China and Taiwan (as a “province of China”) and “Palestinian Territory, Occupied”, but again omits Kosovo. However it correctly lists many separate countries that are not UN member states, including Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, Greenland, and the Færoe Islands.

On the other hand, the ISO-3166 list has separate entries for Cocos Island (population 600), Norfolk Island and Christmas Island (which are not separate countries but territories of Australia), French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion and Guadeloupe (which are actually part of France) and other areas which make no claim to be separate countries. Conversely, it does not list Spanish posessions such as Ceuta, which is an “Autonomous city of Spain”, but is disputed by Morocco.

The ISO-3166 code for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is “UK”. The United Kingdom is a commonwealth realm (or soverign state) consisting of four countries : England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but none of these are listed in the ISO-3166 country list even though they are countries.

Wikipedia is a very helpful source of information and is kept up to date: This page helpfully maintains a list of “Soverign states”, and goes into considerable detail about dependant territories, conflicts and disputes. Wikipedia explains the situation regarding Kosovo, Abkhazia, Taiwan, and many other countries, and gives information on the hierarchy of areas such as Great Britain (Great Britain is not a country but an island. Britain refers to the Kingdom of England and the Principality of Wales, but excludes the Kingdom of Scotland. The British situation is particularly well explained).

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority maintains the list of top-level internet domain names (such as .uk, .com and .info). This list is interesting for a number of reasons. It contains the top level country-code .gb as well as .uk (although the former is not used). The country-codes .yu (Yugoslavia) and .su (Soviet Union) still both continue to exist in 2009. There is no entry for Kosovo, England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but the non-countries of Cocos, Norfolk and Christmas Islands and French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion and Guadeloupe are all included (as are others). The European Union has its own “country code” entry .eu which is politically interesting (the EU is not a country, though some think it is heading that way)

So, is it possible to get a proper list of countries ? In some languages, the distinction between a state and a country is blurred. For example, the Federal Republic of Germany is a “Bund” (federation) divided into Länder – usually translated as “states” but a more correct translation would be “countries”. Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia call themselves “Freistaat” (free state or republic), even though they are not autonomous.

Let us assume therefore that our list of countries will be incomplete or wrong. Why does this matter when the client is based in London and is only aiming at a UK (or more broadly, an English) audience?

London of all places has a very high number of political refugees, dissidents and people who for one reason or another have moved here from their homeland. It is highly likely that one of the countries on (or off) our list will relate to a London resident. Do we insult the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by omitting their lands, or insult the Georgians by including them? Does one include or exclude Kosovo or Taiwan? What about England or Guadeloupe? The mention of the territory called “Palestine” is especially political, even in apolitical circles.

So to return to the original issue: a box on a form for someone to enter their country. By providing a drop-down box, the website owner is making a political statement (perhaps unwittingly). On most websites that have a drop-down list, I cannot choose “England” any more than I can choose “Yorkshire”. To avoid this political nightmare, I would prefer a text box where users can write anything they like, and I run the risk of having visitors from Elbonia ( and Applesauce Lorraine.