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21 Jan, 2007

Survey shows global public believes world will be less safe, has no confidence in leaders

Originally Published: 21 January 2007

As preparations are finalised for this week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in the glitzy Swiss resort of Davos, the annual jamboree of the rich and famous, the WEF has released the results of a global public opinion survey which “shows a growing lack of confidence in leaders to improve our lives.”

Really? Goodness gracious. How can that be?

After all these past years of thundering speeches about “freedom and democracy,” globalization as a panacea for all the world’s ills and the “war on terror”, amongst other pet subjects, how is it possible that 55,000 people in 60 countries still have “a lack of faith that leaders can make positive change in such a fragile global environment”?

A sneak preview of the results of the Gallup International Voice of the People survey was unveiled last week to set the stage for discussions by representatives of business, politics and civil society at the WEF under the theme “Shaping the Global Agenda – The Shifting Power Equation.” This is the fourth year the survey has been conducted.

According to the survey, opinions about whether the next generation will live in a safer world show increasing pessimism compared to previous years – a quarter (26%) think the world will either be a lot or a little safer but they are outweighed by almost half of all respondents (48%) who feel that the next generation will live in a little or a lot less safe world.

Regionally, Western Europe is the most pessimistic region in the world about future prospects for safety – two-thirds (68%) in this region feel the next generation will live in a less safe world (either a lot less safe or a little less safe), while only one in ten (10%) feel the world will be a lot or a little safer for the next generation.

The Americas are the next most pessimistic region with six out of ten (59%) also supporting the view that the world will be a less safe place for future generations, while only 15% felt that the world would be a safer place.

Two-thirds of the Americans interviewed (64%) felt that the world would be a less safe place for future generations with only one in ten (11%) maintaining the opposite view that the world would be either a lot or a little safer.

The people of the Middle East are also less upbeat about prospects for safety in the future. A quarter of those interviewed (24%) feel it will be safer (a lot or a little), compared with close to half (46%) who feel the opposite.

Asked whether they think the future generation will live in a world of greater or less economic prosperity, four out of ten respondents globally (40%) indicated that the next generation will live in a lot or little more economically prosperous world than now, while one-third (31%) felt it would be a lot or a little less prosperous for the future generation.

Respondents were also asked to compare the characteristics of political leaders with those of business leaders.

According to the survey results, as in previous years, business leaders are consistently rated more positively than political leaders, with criticisms of the latter group featuring heavily on their dishonesty – mentioned by more than four out of ten global citizens (43%).

In Africa, eight out of ten (81%) said political leaders are dishonest. But six out of ten East Europeans (60%) also felt the same about their political leaders, reaching eight out of ten in Serbia (81%). Over half of all US citizens interviewed (52%) also think their politicians are dishonest.

Respondents were asked what they thought leaders should focus on in the coming year, another trend question since 2004.

Although in previous years, economic objectives such as “promoting economic growth” and “closing the gap between rich and poor” scored marginally higher than the other priorities offered, this year sees “reducing wars” edging slightly ahead of the other priorities, mentioned by 15% of all those interviewed.

The “war against terror” was a priority for only 12% globally.

When asked how to restore trust in public and private institutions, global citizens are clear. According to the survey, “The mistakes of recent years have taken their toll and citizens feel that greater transparency and improved governance are necessary (32%), along with more punishment of fraudulent behaviour by officials (30%).”

As seven out of ten (71%) thought that global platforms where leaders from all parts of society talk to find solutions are either very or quite useful, Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman and Founder of the World Economic Forum, was quoted as saying that “the pressure is on in Davos for global leaders to achieve some of these objectives for the citizens of the world who, in doing so, improve their own ratings and the opinions that global citizens hold of them.”

However, the really tough questions that organisations such as the World Economic Forum do not pose themselves is whether they agree that their own discussions and packaged solutions based on their top-down view of the global agenda could in fact be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Note that while the attention of the world’s media is focussed on the rich and famous, little coverage will be devoted to another major event, the World Social Forum (WSF), to be held in Kenya at almost exactly the same time as the WEF in Davos.

The activists who attend the WSF are those who helped derail the World Trade Organization talks by stressing to political leaders that they were being taken for a ride by the industrialised West – the same politicians that the public considers “dishonest.”

Last year’s collapse of the WTO talks are the kind of events that Mr Schwab is referring to when he says, “We are witnessing everywhere a changing power equation. Power is moving from the centre to the periphery. Vertical command and control structures are eroding and are being replaced by horizontal networks of social communities and collaborative platforms.”

If the WEF really wants to help its leaders “improve their own ratings,” here’s a challenge: As “reducing wars” has risen as a public priority, let’s see if the global leaders will take a firm and strong stand against the growing rancor to attack Iran.

Exactly four years ago, the world’s peace activists and non-governmental organizations who attend the World Social Forums took a stand against the disastrous war in Iraq, and were proved right. The “leaders” at the World Economic Forum did nothing.

As a similar debacle approaches in Iran, will the WEF leaders respond to public opinion, be honest with themselves and seek to avert yet another of the “mistakes of recent years”?

I doubt it.

That is exactly why no-one should be surprised when public opinion surveys “show a growing lack of confidence in leaders to improve our lives.”