Medals, decorations and orders of chivalry have existed for as long as rulers have needed a relatively cheap way to show they appreciated those who laboured in their service. An honour, a knighthood or just a plain old medal are the time honoured way to reward loyalty, courage, devotion to duty or just resisting the temptation to brain ones monarch in the bath or picking the right side in a civil war. Possibly to counter this last impulse the highest bravery decoration in Colombia explicitly cannot be awarded for actions undertaken in a civil war or during internal unrest.
Britain, of course, with its long imperial history and its even longer royal one has so many honours, orders, medals and commemorations that it seems unlikely that anyone in the country doesn't have at least one. However pretty much every nation has a few. It seems as though the day after independence is dedicated to designing a bunch of medals and orders for the new management to hand out, possibly in lieu of pay. Napoleon wasn't wrong when he said "by such trinkets men are led". Even San Marino which is little more than a mountain top tax haven in Italy has the Order of San Marino "for outstanding civil or military services to the republic". Since the principal armed force of San Marino still use crossbows one can only assume that the military category isn't awarded too often.
Naturally whenever there is an award system based (at least supposedly) upon merit there will be corruption. It wasn't too long ago that Britain had an "honours for donations" scandal where the previous government was handing out peerages in return for large amounts of cash. This was apparently terribly bad despite the fact most honours are a deliberate payment for services rendered. Possibly we could get around the stigma associated with buying honours by introducing a whole new class. The Order of Political Expediency. This could be arranged in the traditional five classes from Member all the way up to Knight Grand Cross. The queen would be grand master of course and we can toss in some heraldic animal or other and knock up a coat of arms to go with it. Permit me to be the first to suggest the civet cat as an appropriate animal. They are tough, ferocious little beasts and on close examination are wont to spray their persecutors with a vile smelling stench. No more appropriate animal could be found. Awards would be made solely on the basis of political donation and each prospective member would need to be vouched for by five existing members who would have to sign a statutory declaration confirming that the hopeful newcomer had paid them to do so.
Here and there however one encounters an honour or a medal that just makes you blink for a moment. The Danes for example have the Order of the Elephant as one of their highest chivalric orders which can only mean that by the time the Danes got around to handing out orders all the good heraldic animals had been taken. Even the Order of the Elephant seems pretty impressive in a ponderous sort of way when compared with a bravery medal given by Trinidad and Tobago. One can be awarded the Hummingbird Medal in gold, silver or bronze depending on exactly how brave or useful your service was deemed to be (and possibly depending on the precious metal stocks in the Trinidad Central Bank). Oddly the Aztecs also used to refer to particularly brave warriors as hummingbirds, possibly there's a connection there although very few people in Trinidad today see the need to cut anyone's heart out with an obsidian knife.
My favourite medal, however, has to be one awarded by the republic of Senegal in west Africa. This is the Medal for Good Truck Drivers. One wonders how often that has to be awarded and is it something so rare that obeying the road rules deserves special distinction? I also can't help wondering what the exact criteria for such an award are. Is it open to bus drivers for example? How about operators of heavy machinery? If a medal winner runs a red light is his medal ceremonially revoked along with his licence? Exactly who recommends him and does there have to be testimony from his superior truck drivers confirming the acts of truck driving derring do that justify the award? I can't help thinking that Senegal might not be a good place to learn to drive, at least not unless your instructor has a strip of medal ribbons.