Global Public Opinion

Citizens of some of the world's richest, most democratic nations are questioning whether their countries are really governed in accordance with the public will, according to the latest GlobeScan tracking.

In 2011, GlobeScan asked citizens to say whether they considered that their country was “governed by the will of the people.” With many of the countries also surveyed back in 2002, the findings show how perceptions have shifted over nearly a decade.

They reveal that there have been significant decreases in four of the world's biggest economies—Germany, Japan, the UK and the USA—in the proportions who believe that the will of the people governs their country. Proportions who believe this have fallen from 32% to 21% in Germany, 44% to 29% in the USA, 27% to 21% in the UK, and 15% to 4% in Japan—the lowest proportion in the survey.

Despite unrest about alleged vote-rigging in recent parliamentary elections, Russia is one of the few countries where the number of citizens satisfied with the government's responsiveness to public opinion has increased over the decade—still, fewer than one in five Russians (19%, up from 12%) believes that the country is governed by the will of the people.

With negative perceptions of public power more common in the world's major democracies than in China (where 47% believe the country is governed by the will of the people), it seems that elections in themselves may no longer be sufficient to create a strong sense of popular sovereignty.

The consequences of high oil prices–still around $100 a barrel–are making themselves felt again. Exxon has announced increased profits, and prices at the fuel pump are at near-record levels.

So the fact that fears of further price increases are at the top of consumers’ concerns about energy, according to GlobeScan's world public attitudes tracking, should not come as a surprise. Nearly one in four citizens (23%) across nine countries polled since 1998 now cites rising prices as their primary energy-related concern.

The latest data also reveals the impact of last year's incident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant. Concern about the risks posed by nuclear power had fallen away significantly the last time this question was fielded in 2008, as many governments contemplated ramping up their nuclear programs in response to increasing concerns over energy security and supply. But the Fukushima accident has clearly made many think again, and worries about the risks of nuclear power are now mentioned as the primary energy-related concern by nearly as many (21%) as possible price increases.

However, other recent GlobeScan findings suggest that some countries are bucking the trend. While support for building new nuclear power stations has fallen in many countries, it has remained stable in the USA, and has risen in the UK. With support for nuclear expansion also high in China and Pakistan, it is too soon to say that public opinion has swung decisively against nuclear power.

Save the Children reported this week that the recent rise in global food prices was taking its toll on families across the developing world, and that half a billion children risk being born physically and mentally stunted over the next fifteen years if no concerted action is taken. GlobeScan's recent polling for Save the Children, as well as its regular global attitudes tracking, confirm the scale of the problem.

GlobeScan’s own annual tracking research reveals high levels of concerns about the rising cost of food and energy among citizens across the world, with proportions saying this issue is “very serious” particularly high in the Philippines and the Latin American countries surveyed. The rising cost of food and energy is also of relatively high concern in China and Russia; concern has grown significantly in China over the past two years as food prices have continued to rise rapidly in that market.

In many developing countries, the effects of rising food and energy prices are particularly felt among those who have not benefitted from economic growth that has frequently been concentrated to specific sections of society, often leaving behind low-income and low-educated groups. In a recent survey fielded by GlobeScan on behalf of Save the Children in India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, and Bangladesh—countries where half the world’s malnourished children live—large majorities in all countries polled say that the rising price of food has become their most pressing concern this year. Concern is most acute in Nigeria and Bangladesh, where people overwhelmingly feel that food price rises are the most pressing issue they face.

A third of parents surveyed revealed that their children complained they didn’t have enough to eat. Around one in six parents (16%) – and nearly one in three in Nigeria (30%) – say they have allowed their children to skip school to help pay for their family’s food. The charity warns that if no concerted action is taken, half a billion children will be physically and mentally stunted over the next 15 years.

The potency of water as a political issue in the world's major emerging economies was underlined again this week when it was reported that water levels had plunged in the Siang river in India's north-east. Allegations were levelled that China—where water stress is also a major concern—had diverted much of the water on the Chinese side of the border, preventing it reaching farmers and residents who depend upon on it in the Indian state of Assam.

This controversy is not surprising, given the central importance that Indian citizens attach to water as an issue, according to Globescan’s global attitudes tracking. Our most recent data reveal that Indians consider fresh water shortages to be the most serious of a range of environmental problems, with nearly seven in ten (68%) rating them as “very serious”—up nearly ten percentage points since 2008. Furthermore, water pollution was cited this year as the second most serious environmental problem, with 59% rating it “very serious,” well ahead of problems like climate change (47%).

With the Indian economy registering its seventh consecutive quarter of slow growth, water insecurity, already an important concern, is likely to become increasingly central to the politics of this huge emerging economy.

The rise in global food prices over the last year is having a major effect on consumption habits in the global South, according to GlobeScan research on behalf of Save the Children, with many reporting that they have cut back on the amount of food they buy for their family.

The price of staple foods such as beans, wheat and other cereals increased substantially during 2011, following severe weather in some of the world's biggest food exporting countries, which damaged supplies. GlobeScan's findings reveal that majorities in Peru (56%) and Nigeria (54%) and substantial proportions in Bangladesh (49%), Pakistan (40%) and India (29%) say that they have reduced the amount of food they buy for their family as a result of rising prices.

The last time global food prices peaked, in 2008, food riots resulted in the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Latin America, and GlobeScan tracking found that the price of food and energy was a greater concern than the ongoing economic crisis.

Over many years, GlobeScan’s regular tracking of global publics’ trust in different types of institutions has shown that NGOs are clearly the most trusted. Compared to global and national businesses, governments, and the media, trust in NGOs is significantly higher and continues to rise slowly.

To further investigate why this high level of trust exists, we asked people to say what NGOs had done recently to earn their trust. The word cloud derived from their responses starkly illustrates two key findings. The first is the prominence of “help” (and to a lesser extent "support") along with two key recipients of that help, “people” and “environment.” This highlights how important tangible outcomes are to people’s willingness to see NGOs as trustworthy. It also adds weight to what GlobeScan found in its global public polling in 2008—that the consensus of public support for NGOs’ role in aid and assistance work is greater than for their political campaigning and advocacy.

Paradoxically, the other very frequent response is “nothing.” This raises an important question of whether the high level of trust in NGOs we witness is, at least in part, based on blind faith that NGOs can be trusted, simply because of what they represent. Indeed in recent research conducted in the US and UK, we found few people admit to knowing much about how non-profits and charities operate, despite most people believing they are the most effective change-makers.

NGOs should be wary of this potentially shaky foundation of public trust. Both historical and recent examples of scandals and controversies engulfing NGOs demonstrate how quickly trust can be wiped away, especially in the age of social media.

GlobeScan's most recent tracking of consumer confidence around the world confirms that to talk about “global” economic sentiment is somewhat misleading.

The polarized picture we have noted in recent years continues, with consumers in the world's major industrialized economies remaining predominately downbeat, while those in some of the major emerging economies are more likely to feel positive about their financial situation.

Notably, despite increasing talk of an economic slowdown, Chinese consumers appear much more upbeat about their financial situation than they did in 2011. The situation in India is more balanced, although those who report that their financial situation is better than last year still outnumber those who feel worse off than a year ago.

The contrast with the G7 is stark. If the recent improvement in US unemployment figures is translating into less negative sentiment among consumers there, the same cannot be said in France or, particularly, the UK, where sentiment remains heavily negative. There is little sign that Western consumers are ready to be the motor of any sustained economic recovery.

The recent wave of foreign investment in Africa—much of it from China—has started to transform the employment situation and infrastructure in parts of the continent. According to The Economist, trade between China and Africa surpassed $120 billion in 2010, and it is claimed that China has given more loans to Africa over the past two years than the World Bank. Despite the controversy surrounding China’s new-found influence in the continent—with concern as to whether the benefits of the investment stay in Africa or are all repatriated to China—GlobeScan’s recent public attitudes poll for BBC World Service suggests that Africans themselves are much more relaxed about it than much of the rest of the world.

A narrow majority of those we polled across 22 countries at the end of last year saw foreign investment in Africa as a very or somewhat good thing for the continent, with around one in four holding the opposite view. However, the results indicate that some of the world’s major donor countries have misgivings. A majority of Germans (56%) and significant minorities of French (44%), Spaniards (40%), Britons and Americans (both 32%) think it is a bad thing.

In contrast, the four African countries in our sample all have very large majorities feeling that the foreign investment is a positive thing, with support highest in Nigeria (85%), but also very high in Kenya (75%), Ghana (72%), and Egypt (71%).

The ongoing economic crisis appears to be having a negative influence on the global public’s judgment of progress on economic wellbeing, according to our latest global polling.

When asked to evaluate the state of progress on societal challenges over the last twenty years, people across 22 countries were more likely to feel that environmental protection and creating healthier and more equitable societies had got better over that period than felt the same way about improved economic wellbeing, which nearly as many felt had got worse (36%) as felt it had improved (39%).

These findings suggest that current socioeconomic difficulties may be making it difficult for citizens to perceive the widespread increase in living standards over the last two decades, which has been particularly marked in middle-income countries such as Brazil, India and China. Not surprisingly, these are the three countries most likely to perceive an improvement in economic wellbeing over the period, while troubled European and North American economies, particularly Greece, are the least likely.

The findings are drawn from The Regeneration Roadmap, GlobeScan and SustainAbility’s collaboration aimed at generating a roadmap for sustainable development over the coming years.

While a deal may be emerging at the Rio+20 sustainable development conference, it is already being criticized as inadequate to address pressing global challenges, particularly in terms of environmental protection and mitigating climate change. The inability of political leaders to agree to radical policies—changes that could prove unpalatable to their electorates in the midst of economic crisis—is often cited as a reason for the failure of recent UN summits to meet expectations.

Nonetheless, the latest GlobeScan public attitudes tracking suggests that most citizens around the world remain optimistic that progress on environmental protection will be made over the next two decades—and those in the world’s major emerging powers are significantly more optimistic than many of their developed-world counterparts.

Summit hosts Brazil, and China, emerge as the most bullish about the prospects of leaders making environmental progress in the decades to come (77% optimistic in both cases, with 35% very optimistic in Brazil). Emerging economic powers Indonesia and Mexico are not far behind. Among developed economies, Germans are the most optimistic (67%), followed by Americans (62%)—despite the US administration being widely seen as an obstacle to a more far-reaching agreement at Rio.

While optimists are also in the majority in the UK, Canada, and France, two in five or more are pessimistic in each of countries. However, the only country with a majority of pessimists is Greece—in keeping with the very downbeat worldview apparent in our recent polling there. This suggests that, overall, electorates may be more willing to accept a switch to environmentally sustainable policies than is sometimes assumed.

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