How global connectedness is passing the pandemic “stress test”

As the sun begins to set on 2021, the state of globalization is far stronger than many expected. The DHL Global Connectedness Index 2021 Update takes a comprehensive, data-driven look at the events of 2020-21. Find out how the world’s trading system recovered from the initial pandemic shock, what longstanding vulnerabilities have been exposed, and why a more connected world offers the best prospects for a healthy, prosperous, and sustainable future.

DHL Global Connectedness Index - 2021 Update

Globalization shock and recovery in the Covid-19 crisis

Click here to 2021 GCI Update

Globalization shock and recovery

In early 2020, the world faced the worst pandemic in a century, triggering one of the greatest global challenges of our time. As Covid-19 spread across the planet, trade in goods plummeted at a record pace. Sharp drops in travel and transportation caused trade in services to suffer an even larger decline. The crisis also hit flows of capital and, unsurprisingly, people. Only the digital flow of information surged as we exchanged in-person interactions for on-screen interfaces.

The good news is that, overall, globalization is recovering from the initial shock – and far stronger than many expected. Trade in goods bounced back quickly in mid-2020 and even surpassed pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year. By early 2021, global trade volumes set new records. Trade in services other than travel and transportation has been resilient, and forecasts call for trade growth (both goods and services) to outpace GDP in 2021 and 2022. Capital flows rebounded quickly as financial markets stabilized early in the pandemic, and the globalization of information flows returned to its pre-pandemic slowing growth trend. Only people flows have been slow to recover, but we see glimmers of hope as international travel begins to pick up again. 

Understanding the pandemic’s impact on global connectedness

People often equate globalization with international trade – but it is much more than that. That’s why the DHL Global Connectedness Index takes a broader view. Aside from global trade, we also look at cross-border flows of capital, information, and people worldwide. The Index draws on more than 3.5 million data points to provide a comprehensive look into these flows. So, while many have predicted the fall of globalization and a rise in regionalization, the numbers tell a different story. By analyzing the depth and the breadth of global connectedness annually, we can see what actually happened, compare it to the past, and put it into context.   

Now in its tenth year, our latest report provides a fresh view of the pandemic’s impact on globalization. This 2021 update of the DHL Global Connectedness Index shows a modest decline in 2020, followed by clear evidence of recovery in 2021. However, while globalization has proven far more resilient than many expected, the pandemic has also highlighted critical vulnerabilities.

Global Connectedness - Key take aways

Globalization proves resilient

through Covid-19 crisis.

Globalization has not given way

to regionalization.

US-China trade

rebounded during the pandemic.

The world’s poorest countries

are lagging behind in the globalization recovery.

Stronger global connectedness

could accelerate the world’s recovery.

Choose & compare the results

GCI Alternative content Global

Leveraging a connected world for a solid and sustainable recovery

There’s more good news: our data shows that stronger connectedness could accelerate the world’s recovery from Covid-19. So, we can learn from this globalization “stress test” and take steps now to strengthen our global connections.

The DHL Global Connectedness Index has consistently reported that advanced economies are more connected than emerging and developing economies, with less developed countries lagging behind. The pandemic has, unfortunately, exacerbated such disparities. Even as global trade set new records in early 2021, the countries with the lowest per capita incomes were still trading less than they did in 2019. Similarly, during the first half of 2021, foreign direct investment flowing into low-income countries fell, while it went up sharply in middle- and high-income countries. The world’s poorest countries are still dangerously disconnected, which means that bolstering the foundations of a connected world – and better integrating less developed countries – could help countries recover faster and build resilience for the future.

Connecting to a more resilient and prosperous future

It’s time to stop predicting globalization’s demise in the wake of every new crisis. The past decade may have been a volatile one, but the world’s connectedness has not collapsed. The swift recovery of trade and other global flows during the pandemic demonstrates the resilience of globalization. And the more extreme the challenge, the more urgent it becomes to tap into the best ideas and resources from home and abroad.

The DHL Global Connectedness Index 2021 Update also reveals four priority areas to address longstanding vulnerabilities that became even more apparent during the pandemic: 1) fortify global and regional supply chains, (2) bolster trade agreements and international institutions, (3) prevent the world’s poorest countries from falling further behind, and (4) secure the future of digital globalization. 

Trade has been essential to relieving pandemic-driven shortages, and we should strengthen international supply chains via capacity-building, diversification, and better visibility. Trade agreements proved to be a bulwark in a chaotic environment, and they can be deepened and expanded. Weak connections to the rest of the world have exacerbated the challenges confronting low-income countries, and we know what kinds of policies can help narrow this globalization gap. Finally, digital flows have proven their value, even as threats to their growth continue to mount.

A look through history shows that a profound crisis can lead to more robust connections. So, the question is: Will the Covid-19 pandemic prompt us again to reach across borders to build a better future? The choices of policymakers and business leaders worldwide will play significant roles in shaping the next phases of the world’s recovery from the pandemic. The fastest way back to health and prosperity is through global cooperation, bringing together all the strengths of a connected world. 

The world is passing the Covid-19 “stress test.” Now it’s time for decision-makers in business and government to maximize the benefits of global connectedness, speed our recovery from this crisis, and build greater resilience for those that are sure to come.

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Why do we need the GCI?

To make sound decisions, business leaders need solid information. Each year, the DHL Global Connectedness Index (GCI) provides a grounded perspective on the state of globalization to help them do just that.

An essential piece of the puzzle

Globalization is at the forefront of many trade and policy discussions around the world, but it remains a difficult concept to quantify. Making it tangible and measuring its development calls for scrutinizing the data and separating facts from fiction. As a leading logistics company, DHL is uniquely positioned to provide orientation and contribute to the globalization debate.

The DHL Global Connectedness Index (GCI) is a thorough examination of the state of globalization. It analyzes trade, capital, information, and people flows at the global, regional, and national levels. Each issue builds on the previous report as well as decades of globalization research. A team of scholars at the New York University Stern School of Business conducts the research and analysis. The GCI not only informs DHL’s decisions, but it also helps businesses, governments, journalists, and opinion-makers better understand the nature and trajectory of global connectedness.


Real data and actual flows

The DHL GCI report is based exclusively on hard data and measures the actual flows between countries. It encompasses more than 3.5 million data points in four flow categories: trade, capital, information, and people.

Each issue provides a worldwide, regional, and individual look at more than 150 countries and ranks them according to their level of connectedness. The reports also include summaries and analyses for key countries. 

Tangible takeaways for sound decision-making

The DHL Global Connectedness Index also offers unique and specific takeaways. As debates about the merits of international openness continue, sound business and public policy decisions depend on accurate measures of globalization. DHL's GCI aims to be a go-to resource for this purpose. The data can enable better-informed discussions by providing a clearer picture of how globalized countries and the world already are today. 

Key long-term insights on connectedness

Each DHL GCI examines the latest data on trade, capital, information, and people flows and then puts recent developments into historical context. But over the years, some more general findings have proven to be valid over the longer term:


Globalization holds up, even under intense pressure


The world is less globalized than many presume


The Netherlands is the world's most connected country

  1. Globalization holds up, even under intense pressure
    Despite strong headwinds in global geopolitics and trade, the GCI has shown surprising resilience in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic put people flows on pause, but trade, capital, and information flows have helped to keep the world connected.
  2. The world is less globalized than many presume
    Overall, the world is not as globalized as many think. Surveys consistently show that people believe international flows are more extensive than they actually are. Every country has untapped opportunities for increased connectedness, with potential gains into the trillions of U.S. dollars.
  3. The Netherlands is the most globally connected country
    While the GCI country ranking has changed frequently over time, one country has consistently stayed at the top: The Netherlands. Due to a combination of unique traits, this country is a globalization champion, which isn’t likely to change. 

Driven by data, delivered by DHL

First published in 2011, the DHL Global Connectedness Index (GCI) draws on more than 3.5 million data points on country-to-country flows covering 99% of global GDP and 98% of the world’s population.

To provide a solid research foundation for the GCI, DHL partnered with New York University’s Stern School of Business. The DHL Initiative on Globalization at NYU Stern houses a team of scholars that creates and authors all DHL GCI reports, striving to be a leading center of excellence for data-driven globalization research.

Due to its unique focus, the DHL GCI is regularly featured in international media outlets and national publications worldwide. It is also increasingly cited in scholarly journals, consultant reports, and general interest books.

Published: December 2021

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