Return to Sender: What Can Postal Behavior Tell Us About a Nation?

(Photo: Wei Tchou)

I am not sure this is as meaningful as the authors think, but still it is an interesting experiment. From a new working paper called “Letter Grading Government Efficiency” by Alberto Chong, Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, and Andrei Shleifer:

We mailed letters to non-existent business addresses in 159 countries (10 per country), and measured whether they come back to the return address in the U.S. and how long it takes.  About 60% of the letters were returned, taking over 6 months, on average.  The results provide new objective indicators of government efficiency across countries, based on a simple and universal service, and allow us to shed light on its determinants.  The evidence suggests that both technology and management quality influence the quality of government.

I am happy to read that final sentence but surprised it needed to be said. This paper may tickle your memory with thoughts of Stanley Milgram‘s “small-world experiment” (better known as “six degrees of separation“) and Judith Kleinfeld‘s reassessment of that experiment as told in Duncan Watts‘s excellent book Six Degrees.

Anyway, here is a key table from the “Return to Sender” paper:

Mike B

Wish they had put the whole list in the paper. Would have liked to see the response rate from North Korea or Afghanistan.


Those countries may not have been included


At least Afghanistan was included. One of the images of returned mail was addressed to Herat in Afganistan. There are also letters returned from Libya, Cuba, Angola and Zambia. I am curious how effective some of the systems in these countries are. Obviously, it is a small sample size, but the data looks like it could be very interesting.


What about for those countries where the postal service is not operated by the government, like here in the UK for example?


Well in the US, mail is not controlled by the government. In many other countries, it is. I'm not sure the design of the study is solid.

Warren M

Why was Brazil excluded?


In Soviet Russia, your mail returns you!


I am somewhat expert in these matters, mailing >1000 bubble-packs and parcels per year all over the world. My random observations:

Switzerland is the only country in the world whose customs authorities will open your package, look up your website and determine the actual price of the contents, then collect the customs fee from the customer.

Despite vaunted German efficiency, their post office is a shambles, and always has been.

>1% of mail to Australia or Austria get shipped to the other country. It eventually seems to find the right one.

The US post office is excellent. My delivery rate is better than 99.99%, not counting the ones lost by MY screw-ups.

I never insure US-bound packages. It is easy to calculate that it is foolish if anyone knows what is in the package or by by putting a high insurance value on it. I once knew a postal clerk who routinely stole high-value insured packages.


Seminymous Coward

What is the number of days to get a letter back when it is not returned? I would not equate it with the number of days until you give up (like the study did, mentioning it explicitly on page 8), especially if you are going to advantage Cambodia by mailing its letters 5.3 days later. That strikes me as a bizarre choice of protocol.

Enter your name...

To calculate that average, you'd have to divide by zero (number of days divided by number of letters returned). They should have just left it blank.

Oleg S

I wonder if the result also depends on postal policies in different countries. I suspect that not all countries return foreign mail. My understanding has always been that Russia does not return undeliverable mail to the US. If this is indeed the policy, then 0% return is the evidence of high efficiency: the policy is strictly followed.


Since they mailed all the letters FROM the US, isn't that highly biased towards making the US #1? And presumably biased towards countries fewer hops from the US. Additionally this was all in English inside and out, again being harshly biased towards native English-speaking countries and those where English is a common second language. I can't imagine a fair way to actually do this study, but I would like to see the results if it were performed again a few times with all the letters posted from some random other countries on the list, and in their native (perhaps obscure) language. They make note several times of following the International Postal Convention that all countries subscribe to (such as using the latin alphabet), but I would wager that was written and pushed through in the time of a very Anglocentric and Anglo-controlled world.


The reason for mail to the US to be returned quickest may not have anything to do with postal efficiency. Since the items were sent from the US, no international boundaries were crossed, meaning no delays with customs or other border crossing issues. Each letter sent and returned to another country goes through that process twice, possibly delaying it farther. It perhaps would have been better for the mail sent to US cities to have a return address in another nation, which would better measure the US's handling of international mail.


It would be interesting to see how this is different if you put money in the envelopes


Many countries seem to be in violation of various international mail handling treaties.

I wish they had put the rankings for all the countries as well.

Q: if a country has 0% of the letters returned, how can it have a value in the "Avg number of days" column?


"Switzerland is the only country in the world whose customs authorities will open your package, look up your website and determine the actual price of the contents, then collect the customs fee from the customer."

Incorrect. Make sure you research before making that statement.


I am only stating my experience.

There certainly may be other countries who routinely do this, and the Swiss might not open every package. But I will no longer risk it based on my experience, even though my foreign customers routinely try to avoid tariffs.

The Swiss seem very good at their jobs.

What is your disagreement?


The study is quite flawed. In Colombia, for instance, there isn't any government operated postal service.


Seriously how USA centered is that? Post mail from the states and measure government efficiency by the return rate to the USA? Nobody sees the flaw?