For some time now, I've been a big fan of the World Bank's Doing Business initiative. The group's primary undertaking is an annual ranking of the ease of doing business in 150 different countries. The report's metrics run the gamut from the speed of incorporating a new business or registering property, to help ease enforcing contracts and getting credit.

These criteria are the bedrocks of a functioning capitalist economy. Such intangible-seeming metrics are actually quite readily measured, thanks in part to the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. In fact, it's as if the World Bank, in conceiving and executing this initiative, took a page right out of de Soto's instant classic, The Mystery of Capital.

Naming and shaming
On the one hand, I view the report as a useful tool to identify those countries making the most progress. It's great PR for a country like Georgia, which, as a former Soviet Union member, does not immediately spring to mind as a great place to do business.

On the other hand, the report is also a great way to "name and shame" the laggards. This technique, pioneered by Human Rights Watch, has proved to be an effective tool in encouraging country reforms in the human rights field. I don't see any reason why it can't work equally well in the economic realm.

After all, most countries that are not run by people named Hugo seem pretty eager to attract foreign investment these days. One colorful example was the Kazakh government's lengthy paid insert in The New York Times, owned by New York Times (NYSE:NYT), this past fall, essentially asserting that it's not a country full of Borats. To the country's credit, I should mention that Kazakhstan leapt 19 spots in the 2006 rankings. That places it ahead of Italy, Brazil, and Argentina. As Borat would say, "Very nice, I like!"

Belgium: Land of chocolate and red tape
The Doing Business Reformer's Club recently honored Belgium, along with Georgia, Mexico, Egypt, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Tanzania, as a top reformer. I'm singling out Belgium here because it's by far the most developed economy out of the bunch and, consequently, a rather surprising honoree.

If you've tasted their beer or chocolate, you'd think that the Belgians have it all figured out. Budweiser (NYSE:BUD) and Hershey (NYSE:HSY) this ain't. Nevertheless, the country's stultifying regulations are legion. Here are some silly rules that have only just recently been phased out, or are still on the books in some form:

  • Future newlyweds need to collect forms from up to three different municipalities and pay stamp duties -- no cash or credit accepted-- on each form.
  • Visually impaired individuals must obtain a permit from the mayor to use a white or yellow walking stick.
  • Sufficient skill to register a business must be demonstrated to the proper authorities.
  • If one works from home, one must have a separate lavatory (one for work, one for home) in order to meet health and safety codes.
  • A certificate of good behavior must be obtained in advance of securing a permit to serve alcohol at a public party.

I learned about these and other absurd laws from, a project that is somewhat surprisingly backed by the Belgian government -- more specifically, the Office for Administrative Reform. The office's Secretary of State, a man by the name of Quickenborne, is apparently simply referred to as Q, because he's just that committed to parsimony. What an ideal bureaucracy-buster!

The Kafka project appears to be a resounding success. In just a few short years, Quickenborne and crew have slashed the time it takes to incorporate in Belgium from upwards of 50 days to under a week. 2006 saw a record number of startups in the country. Over 200 laws have been put on trial and either simplified or eliminated entirely. The Belgian economy's paperwork burden is 25% lighter, resulting in estimated savings of 1.7 billion euros after two years of implementation. As recent travelers to Europe are painfully aware, that's a lot of dollars.

The Foolish bottom line
The narrower takeaway here is that you might want to consider a little Belgian exposure in your portfolio, given the country's business-friendly metamorphosis. You don't have many options as far as individual companies go. Brazil's AmBev (NYSE:ABV) is part of Belgium's InBev brewery empire, but that's clearly a Latin America play. Water giant Suez (NYSE:SZE) used to be a Belgian stalwart, but a late-'90s merger has relocated it to Paris. Fortunately, there's an iShares MSCI Belgium (AMEX:EWK) exchange-traded fund, which tracks the broad Belgian market. And yes, it's up nicely in the past few years.

More broadly, I think the Doing Business rankings are useful to any international investor. As an aside, if you're not yet an international investor, we think you ought to be. Now, if you're looking to gauge the attractiveness of an investment in a particular country, you can always start by looking at standard metrics like the country's market P/E ratio and GDP growth forecast. Why not also take into consideration the country's progress in making its economy more dynamic and globally competitive?

If you're not quite ready to tackle international and emerging market opportunities all by yourself, we have a great community building around the Motley Fool Global Gains newsletter. Bill Mann and his team of analysts are scouring the globe for the best investment opportunities outside of Amerika, er, America. You can access all their previous picks and commentaries by signing up for a 30-day trial, risk free.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute has never been to Belgium, but he's a big fan of the country's Trappist ales. He doesn't own shares in any company or ETF mentioned. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is not remotely Kafkaesque.