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Global Public Opinion

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute released a report this week claiming that income inequality in America has become drastically worse over the past thirty years. Yet GlobeScan’s most recent opinion polling shows that not only are Americans relaxed about society’s wealthiest, they do not perceive inequality to be a major problem.

The matrix presented here shows how views towards inequality and personal wealth compare in countries around the world. Those shown nearer the top of this matrix are the ones most likely to consider big disparities in wealth to be a major problem, while those towards the right of the matrix are most likely to believe that rich people deserve their wealth.

In the bottom right quarter of the matrix—those nations where people are relaxed about inequality and wealth—are the US and other English-speaking nations, as well as rising Asian powers India and China. It is striking that these two nations are exceptions among the developing nations, where economic inequality is otherwise normally viewed as a major problem.

As previous GlobeScan polling has showed, there is a gulf between the UK and its European partners, with France and Germany—along with Peru—believing that despite low levels of concern about inequality, the rich still do not deserve their wealth. The contrast with Spain is more striking still, with respondents in that crisis-hit country both denouncing extremes of inequality and expressing a marked hostility towards wealth. The Spanish are not alone in this viewpoint—Turks and Nigerians express similar sentiments. Finally, respondents in Brazil, Kenya, and Indonesia assert that though inequality is a major problem, the rich do deserve their wealth.

Though attitudes towards wealth and inequality are often considered closely related, this chart makes clear that other cultural and economic factors come into play. The analysis suggests that policymakers in the Anglo-Saxon world should be wary of viewing wealth taxes as a certain vote-winner, while those in Europe might find strong public support for such measures. The analysis also suggests that companies expanding their operations into emerging economies will need to handle the issue of executive compensation very carefully or risk alienating substantial portions of local opinion.

With European ministers meeting this week to hammer out a deal on reduction of Greece’s debt, and persistent rumours of bailouts for some others in the Mediterranean region, Europe’s economic crisis continues to feature prominently in the news agenda. As GlobeScan’s most recent opinion polling shows, this clearly reflects the worries of its citizens.

Spanish citizens best encapsulate the crisis narrative, with unemployment, the economy and political problems cited most often as the most pressing problems facing the country. Here, with concern over unemployment clearly exacerbated by wider economic worries, the deep and persistent nature of the crisis in Spain has highlighted political indecision and factionalism. In France, we see an even higher level of concern over unemployment and the economy – though not yet with the same expression of frustration at the political system as seen in Spain. 

Further variations on the crisis mindset are evident in the UK and Germany, which illustrate the complexities of how economic concerns manifest in individual states. In the UK very high levels of concern are raised around the wider economy, less so on unemployment. The crisis still dominates the public mind, though employment has remained at relatively reasonable levels.  While Germany has perhaps most to lose from a continent-wide collapse, it has remained fairly insulated so far: the economy and unemployment still top concerns, but at comparatively lower levels.

Looking across the Atlantic, US opinion most closely resembles the Spanish pattern with a nexus of concerns over unemployment, the economy and, to a lesser extent, politicsthe latter reflecting a polarized political landscape as evidenced by a bitterly fought election campaign and protracted struggles over legislative measures.

It is striking however, how less settled opinions in the developing world are. The economy is just one among many concerns, and with the exception of India is generally cited by about one in five respondents.

Public opinion is a major driver of policymaking, which in turn naturally impacts on business and civil society. Going forwards, decision makers should be aware of the currents that are influencing debates in their major markets. The same applies to political leaders, particularly across Europe – the leaders of France, Germany, the UK and elsewhere would do well to look at the case of Spain:  fail to be seen to take action, and frustrations directed against decision-makers will start to build.

On Monday the International Labour Organisation (ILO) predicted that over the next 12 months the global unemployment rate could reach a record high of 120 million. Noting that young people were disproportionately hit, the ILO also commented that, while 1 million jobs had been shed in advanced economies over the past year, 3 million were lost in developing economies, despite their greater economic resilience.

The ILO’s pessimistic forecast is reflected in GlobeScan’s most recent polling on this issue. Across 22 countries, 59 percent of people agreed that unemployment was a “very serious” issue - alongside crime, the highest figure of all issues rated. Indeed, concern about unemployment was five points greater than concern about the economic situation.

Despite this and the ILO’s worries that Eurozone problems may be spilling over to the rest of the world, concern over joblessness has actually dropped markedly in many countries. Turkey, Brazil and Canada have all seen sharp drops in concern since 2009, as has Germany, which has thus far been relatively successful in withstanding the European economic crisis. Even France - where unemployment rose for the 19th consecutive month in December – has been seeing a fall in concern over this issue in recent years.

The rising optimism in the Eurozone’s two largest economies is at odds with attitudes in fellow EU members Spain and the UK. In Spain, 91 percent described unemployment as “very serious” – a figure that has remained consistently high since the onset of the crisis. In Britain, meanwhile, despite employment reaching a record high, there has been a modest rise in worry since 2009. China, the US and India have seen slight falls in concern as their economies have continued to grow.

But with little sign of a return to sustained growth in most of the world’s leading economies, it seems likely that unemployment will remain at or near the top of the list of public concerns for some time to come.

As its economy grows and lifestyles change, China is having to adapt its tightly controlled society to external influences. This week Can Nao, a Chinese charity worker revealed, he had been arrested over the Christmas period after meeting to worship in a public park. Shortly after, Shanghai’s former Communist chief stated that while the government would continue to respect religious freedom, it would also seek to adapt belief to the existing system.

GlobeScan’s polling reveals that attitudes towards faith and religious institutions are mixed in China. Our recent polling reveals that the nation’s population are among the most likely to say that science has a strong bearing on the way they live their lives (72%), with only the French and South Koreans more likely to hold this point of view.

However, many Chinese still acknowledge religious institutions’ role within society. Even in this secular country, one in three (31%) says religious groups are doing a good job in tackling social, economic, and environmental issues—some way below the numbers who say scientists are doing a good job (59%), but still a significant proportion.

India meanwhile has a near identical proportion (31%) who say religious groups are doing a good job of tackling challenges, though the proportion who rate scientists’ contribution is lower than in China (41%). Indians, however, are much more likely than Chinese to say that religion determines the way they look at life.

The country who people are most likely to say that religion, rather than science, influences how they live their lives is Pakistan—a country where the clash between fundamentalist and moderate interpretations of Islam continues to cause major political instability. Even here, though, the situation is more mixed when we look at how these groups are dealing with social issues, with scientists more likely to be seen as doing a good job (35%) than clerics (16%).

Contrast this with France, a country with a long anti-clerical tradition, where 76 percent identify science as being an important factor in the way they look at the world, and 80 percent see scientists doing a good job tackling social challenges, while the rating for religious groups stands at -26 percent.

These figures suggest that the influence of religion on populations will wane as countries develop. For now, however, China is the exception rather than the rule—faith and religious institutions will remain key factors in many of the world’s emerging economies. We can expect to see their influence both at the level of policy and in terms of consumer choice for a while yet.

For some commentators, two events this week have highlighted the ascendency of the political left in Latin America. The first was the return of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to his country after months spent battling illness in Cuba. The second was the re-election of Rafael Correa in Ecuador. These events have unnerved some investors, who are wary of further regulation, taxation, and even expropriation of assets.

Yet GlobeScan’s data suggest that, in the wider region, business is generally more popular than government. In Chile and Peru, though global companies are less well perceived, national companies are more trusted than government, and in both Brazil and Mexico the government suffers from a striking deficit in trust compared to business.

Also at odds with the view of the region as “anti-business” is Latin Americans’ strong trust in the free market: 46 percent of Mexicans, 59 percent of Brazilians and 62 percent of Peruvians express some degree of agreement with the statement “the free market is the best system on which to base the future of the world.”

Regional trust in business and the free market economy could be seen as consistent with strong support for capitalism, but South Americans are very concerned about economic inequality. No less than 81 percent of Brazilians see inequality as a major problem, along with 63 percent of Mexicans (a country with a right-wing government) and 52 percent of Peruvians. Similar proportions believe that the wealthy do not deserve their riches. It is likely from this concern over inequality that left-of-centre governments derive some of their support.

The fact that business remains trusted in many parts of Latin America suggests that companies should be wary of characterizing the region as “anti-business.” However, corporate engagement with local communities, and substantial programs to address inequality, are sensible strategies to ensure public support is retained in the long run. This is especially so for global companies, who need to work harder than their local peers to convince people they are working in society’s interests.

Earlier this month, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) predicted that on current trends 39 percent of the world would be connected to the Internet by the end of the 2013. Penetration in developing countries is expected to reach 31 percent by the end of 2013. And, in a sign of the growing centrality of the Internet to modern life, our global tracking reveals that majorities in most countries consider Internet access to be a fundamental right.

When we polled the public in 28 countries in 2010, majorities in all nations except Pakistan (46%) considered Internet access to be a fundamental right. South Korea was the country most likely to view the Internet in this light (96%), with Mexico and Brazil (94%), and Turkey (91% each) close behind.

In 2012, we surveyed women in the developing world on this topic, together with Dalberg and Intel, for the Women on the Web study. We found again that even among this underserviced segment, large numbers were inclined to view the Internet as a fundamental right. 64 percent of Ugandan women, 62 percent of Egyptians, 63 percent of Mexicans, and 46 percent of Indians felt this way.

The countries most likely to see the Internet as a right have generally younger populations and relatively young democracies. It is therefore possible that the Internet is associated with freedom of speech and ideas among a large demographic that has grown up alongside the Internet but in cultures with memories of times when those freedoms were far from assured. While a massive investment in infrastructure will be needed to accommodate the rise in “netizens,” these findings clearly demonstrate that in the eyes of the public, web access has taken its place as a universal value.

There was a string of good news on the US economy this week, with unemployment dropping to its lowest level in four years, a significant rise in consumer spending, and a new high for the S&P 500 stock-market index. But GlobeScan’s most recent public tracking data shows that a major turnaround will be needed if Americans are to rediscover their traditional optimism about their country’s future.

The proportion of Americans who feel that their country is headed in the right direction has been on a long-term decline for over a decade. Whereas in 2001 (before the September 11 attacks) more than half of Americans felt positive about the way things in the USA were going, this has fallen on each occasion we have tracked it, until by the end of 2012 this proportion stood at less than one-third. As this chart shows, optimism in the US is now at a lower level than in four other major developed economies—Canada, Australia, Germany, and the UK.

What is striking is that the major decline in American national optimism took place before the economic crisis of 2007/8. This suggests that a level of political polarization unprecedented in modern times, the ongoing perception of am increased terrorist threat, and a longer-term shift of economic power away from the USA may be as influential as the more recent acute economic malaise in shaping the way Americans feel about their country. It also suggests that Barack Obama should not count on the signs of economic recovery to usher in a new era of positive sentiment.

Across the world both human and animal rights movements remain popular, with millions around the world joining advocacy and campaigning groups. Activists may sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, such as when animal rights activists target the life sciences industry, or when the legal battles of criminals and terrorists are protracted, alienating the general population.

But public support for the rights agenda nonetheless remains high. In our most recent global polling, 76% of those polled across 18 countries described human rights as a serious challenge, while 65% agreed that animal welfare is serious. Countries with recent histories of authoritarianism were most likely to view human rights as a serious challenge, with 90% of Indonesians and Poles saying as much Numbers in Spain (89%), Turkey (88%), Brazil, Peru, and Nigeria (85% each) are barely lower

Brazilians are the most concerned about animal welfare, with 87% describing it as a very serious issue. Poland (84%) and Spain (81%) are not far behind. Indeed in Brazil, Mexico and the UK, fewer people describe human rights as serious than say the same about animal rights. This view is especially pronounced in the UK, where rows over prisoners’ voting rights and the government’s attempts to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada have led to vocal media and political criticism of the country’s Human Rights Act and membership of the European Court of Human Rights.

Though the strongest levels of concern emanate from countries with recent histories of human rights violation, persistently high numbers of people in the West rate rights abuses as serious social challenges. This suggests that over half a century after the founding of Amnesty International and 33 years after the establishment of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), human rights and animal welfare remain, for the global public, as pressing as they were decades ago.

With the airwaves often dominated by discussion of economic indicators and GDP, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that this was the only valid measure of a country’s development. However, nearly seven in ten citizens across eleven countries think that a broader measure—one incorporating health, environmental, and social statistics—should be used instead of GDP to measure national progress.

Drawn from our most recent work with Ethical Markets, the ICAEW, and business think-tank Tomorrow’s Company, these figures from 11 developed and developing nations suggest that the overall consensus favouring alternative measures of gauging development has not changed since 2010. However, at a national level, we can see significant trends. In Australia, China, and the UK, the public is now much more convinced of the need for a broader way of measuring national progress. In contrast, the two countries most in favour of going “beyond GDP” in 2010 are now among those where opposition is strongest— Germany, where the Eurozone crisis may be causing people to value economic success over other considerations, and Brazil, where the boom of recent years has slowed significantly.

It is not clear that this marks a generational shift in public attitudes—when we break the data down by demographics, we also learn that younger respondents are more likely to favour continued reliance on GDP. Nonetheless, as a return to the boom years proves elusive and environmental and social problems persist, it seems clear that a more holistic and comprehensive way of measuring development would enjoy significant world support.

Against the backdrop of one the world’s most severe typhoons and landmark levels of atmospheric CO2, the 19th Conference of the Parties has kicked off this week in Warsaw, Poland. COP19, intended to lay down the groundwork ahead of a new global climate change agreement in Paris in 2015, needs significant progress by politicians, business leaders, opinion formers and scientists if they are to reach consensus.

The general population is unlikely to hear much about the conference via mainstream media and the perspectives of the public can seem lost in the midst of these political, scientific and economic discussions. So let’s bring them back into the debate – what do the global public think about climate change in 2013?

GlobeScan’s Radar 2013, conducted amongst 27,000 individuals across 27 countries, asks the global public its opinion on the issues facing our world today. These are not climate change experts but citizens, voters, consumers, employees and, indeed, polluters.

Our evidence shows that the global public is very much in favor of action on climate change. A solid majority of 55% of the public across 24 countries consider it necessary to take major steps to address climate change. A further 31% told us that they believe it is necessary to take some steps. A minority of 8% believe that it is not necessary to take any steps to address climate change. The sample includes individuals from Poland, the coal-powered host of this year’s conference, and China and the US, whose conflicting perspectives are notorious for putting the brakes on global climate agreements.

High profile weather emergencies such as Hurricane Sandy last year and the ongoing tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan continue to keep the changing climate in the media spotlight. Such attention makes the topic of climate change more tangible in the hearts and minds of the global public. As the latest BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey shows, businesses the world over have understood the demand for action and are busy integrating more sustainable business practices. We now need our global leaders to translate this proven appetite into political action.

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