What the world wants

In what must be one of the broadest consultations ever attempted, the UN has been canvassing the world’s opinions about where we should be headed as a human race. It’s part of the programme to draw up a new set of targets to take over where the Millennium Development Goals left off – a set of priorities that will shape international action and development for the next couple of decades.

It’s the kind of thing you want to get right, so getting the broadest possible buy-in is important and the UN isn’t doing things by halves. So what emerges if you ask 800,000 people what they’d like out of life?

Here are the survey results from the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the MY World survey. People were asked to say which six out of sixteen issues would make the biggest difference to their lives, and here’s what they chose:


There are a variety of ways of exploring the results in more detail, and there are some interesting findings. Education is the top priority for everyone except the over 55s, for whom it is presumably a bit late. They put healthcare first.

It’s no surprise that climate change comes bottom of the overall ranking, given the phrasing of the question. You’d have to feel personally affected right now to tick the box. What’s interesting is that the group that ranked it highest were countries that scored highest on the Human Development Index. They also valued protecting forests, rivers and oceans enough for it to come in at number 5. As we know, it’s hard to think about the environment when you can’t put food on the table.

An honest and responsive government is in the top five priorities for every age group and wealth demographic, but political freedoms doesn’t score higher than number ten for any of them.

Where it gets more curious is the interactive map that shows how various countries voted. 47% of Americans placed better healthcare in their top six, the same percentage as Chad. But then 44% of Britons said better healthcare would make a big difference in their life too, more than the 43% who said the same in the Congo. That might look like a cultural habit of whinging about the NHS, until you remember that the average age in Britain is double that of the Congo, and older people are more likely to vote for healthcare.

Sticking with those two countries, 19% of us in Britain ticked ‘reliable energy at home’, versus just 17% in the Congo, where only one in ten of the population has electricity.  That I find harder to explain. Equally bizarre, Britain’s second highest vote after education was for ‘better water and sanitation’, when Britain has some of the cleanest water in the world. Phone and internet access, which you’d think was far more likely to be in question than running water, scored just 13%.

Perhaps those sorts of results show the limits of the survey when applied to developed countries. The sixteen choices are the result of previous research among the poor, so they will be most relevant to underdeveloped countries. And that raises a question that I’ve asked before, should richer countries have development targets of their own?




  1. I think I’d take these results with a large pinch of salt. It is’t an opinion poll with representative samples but an open survey where people go out of their way to participate. You have to know about the survey (the UN not being big news in the UK) and then care enough to go online and spend time doing the survey. That will skew the results. I’d care to bet that a lot of the UK participants are NGO types who thought they were answering about the issues facing the third world, not the UK.

    It is a step or two above a voodoo poll you get on a website (Is poverty bad? Yes or No) but not many.

    1. I checked the methodology myself before I wrote about it. I linked to it in the post, and in case you missed it, it’s here:

      It’s actually rather broad. You can fill it in online or by mobile phone. It’s also offline in paper form and being circulated by NGOs and grassroots networks. This is the UN we’re talking about – they have the resources to run something a bit more thought through than a straw poll on a blog.

      Having said that, I suspect participants from the UK are less likely to be representative. As I said in the last paragraph, the survey is definitely less useful for developed countries.

      1. I had looked at the methodology already, that’s why I said I didn’t think it was very good. I mistrust all self selecting surveys, their track record is terrible and you have to ask why they were commissioned. If the UN had all that money why isn’t it commissioning proper opinion polls, particularly in developed countries where its is fairly easy to carry out? There are issues with even proper opinion polling in less developed countries.

  2. Is it possible that people were saying what’s important generally, as opposed to in their own country? That would explain why Britain thinks water and sanitation is so important. I mean, I would rather the third world had clean running water than I had even faster internet. And the research is for world development goals, not national goals.
    Or was the question literally “what would be most important for you, personally?”

    1. The exact question on the online version is “Which of these are most important for you and your family?”, which would imply you should choose the things you value most, in which case it makes sense that people value clean water. But then the choices have words like ‘better healthcare’ which suggest that it’s something you want that you don’t have yet, so I suppose it’s pretty open. That’s presumably why the survey is one part of it, and focus groups and grassroots consultations are inputting too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: