Asia Foundation Publishes Survey of Afghans as International Withdrawal Begins
In December 2013, the Asia Foundation released its ninth annual public opinion Survey of Afghans, which polled over 9000 Afghan men and women from all 34 provinces of the country. The Asia Foundation works throughout Asia to improve lives through projects supporting governance and law, economic development, women's empowerment, environmental stewardship, and regional cooperation.
Unlike a decade ago, Afghanistan is no longer front page news. But it might be soon, as the country is approaching a critical juncture at which it will either thrive or falter.
About Afghanistan: Why Survey Afghans?
Canada has been a part of the multilateral intervention in Afghanistan (the International Security Assistance Force) since 2001. Over 50 states have contributed to the mission, which is engaged in training the Afghan National Security Forces, providing civilian protection and conducting counter-terror operations. Afghan forces have now taken over leadership in securing the country, and the intervention is set to conclude at the end of 2014. Afghan government and military capacity has been steadily increasing, and sustained economic growth is encouraging. Still, considerable uncertainty lingers about what will happen to the country when international forces leave (although a scaled-back NATO train, advise, and assist mission will remain) -- particularly given difficulties with neighboring Pakistan, lack of progress in national reconciliation, and a recent suicide bombing incident. Noting this, and in light of upcoming elections in spring 2014, it is critically important to ask Afghans what they think about their country, the direction in which it is headed, and prospects for the upcoming year.
Surveying Afghans: It’s Possible
As you might expect, there are steep challenges attendant to survey research in Afghanistan. Because access to technology is spotty, interviewers must conduct face-to-face interviews. Getting a nationally representative sample is difficult given extreme insecurity in some portions of the country, and it is often difficult to survey women. Nonetheless, it is possible to do public opinion research in Afghanistan because over the past decade outside organizations have invested in the developing the requisite infrastructure nationwide.
The primary actor in this area is the Afghan Centre for Social and Opinion Research (ACSOR-Surveys). It conducts the field work for the Asia Foundation’s Survey of Afghans. ACSOR has a well-established survey research operation for in-person interviewing to a high standard across Afghanistan, which it cultivates through recruiting and training indigenous Afghan professionals.
Using the opportunity provided by this framework, in 2007 the Environics Institute teamed up with CBC, the Globe and Mail, La Presse, and the Munk School of Global Affairs to survey Afghans, asking what they think about their country and the presence of Canada and international forces.
Key Findings of the 2013 Survey of Afghans
The 2013 Survey of Afghans includes 89 questions on a variety of subjects, yielding a textured depiction of national and local public opinion. However, findings on four key issues stand out:
1. The Future of Afghanistan: A majority of Afghans believe the country is moving in the right direction, relatively unchanged since 2012. When asked why the country might be moving in the right direction, the top reasons were: reconstruction, schools for girls, good security, the active presence of the Afghan National Army/Afghan National Police, and an improved education system. When asked why the country might be moving in the wrong direction, Afghans are most likely to emphasize insecurity, corruption and unemployment. That security was listed as a reason for both optimism and pessimism suggests that Afghans may at some level feel safer but there remains a pervasive uneasiness about security. Interestingly, when asked about the biggest problems locally (rather than nationally), insecurity was well down the list of concerns (behind: unemployment, electricity supply, roads, and the availability of drinking water. There are, of course, substantial regional differences in how Afghans responded to these questions.
2. International Presence: The survey suggests Afghan trust in international civilian actors. Half of Afghans have some or a lot of confidence in international NGOs – for context, this is much lower than electronic media (68%), but higher than Parliament (47%) and equivalent to national NGOs. However, Afghans are afraid of international forces. 77% of respondents said they would experience some or a lot of fear when encountering international forces, the highest percentage for any activity listed.
3. The Upcoming National Elections: The survey reflects a mixed view of the upcoming elections. Although a majority of Afghans (61%) believe the elections will be free and fair, a similar proportion (59%) anticipated experiencing fear when voting in a national or provincial election. Moreover, Afghans described corruption as the main reason that elections might not be free and fair.
4. Women’s Rights: 90% of Afghans agree with the notion that, regardless of gender, everyone should have equal rights; although questions on particular rights yield lower levels of public support, the survey suggests consistent majority support for women’s rights.
· Political rights: most (83%) Afghans agree that every person should vote for himself regardless of what the community thinks, but only half (53%) say women should decide who to vote for on their own.
· Right to education: consistent with the priority placed on schools for girls as a reason that Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, Afghans see illiteracy as the most pressing problem facing women. The vast majority of Afghans (83%) believe that men and women should have equal opportunities in education.
· Economic rights: lack of job opportunities for women was seen as another pressing problem for Afghan women. Although women’s participation in the formal economy is extremely low (only 5% of women are employed), 63% of Afghans agree that women should be allowed to work outside the home; this has remained consistent since 2006.
The Asia Foundation's 2013 Survey of Afghans represents an important example of how it is possible to conduct high quality and relevant public opinion research in a relatively undeveloped war torn country like Afghanistan. It is critically important, for two reasons. First, it gives voice to Afghans; shielded by the confidentiality of a properly conducted survey, individuals are able to express themselves in a way that might not otherwise be safe. Second, with the question of “what will happen to Afghanistan?” looming, survey data – an aggregative instrument that can nonetheless capture nuance – provides us with the tools to contextualize new developments.
Download the full report here.
“What are we thinking?” Who is asking? Surveying the landscape of public opinion organizations worldwide
Market research: it’s ubiquitous – an industry that employs people to produce myriad surveys on diverse subjects from political preferences to cellphone usage to dessert food choices and whether you like the programs on TV. They are solicited by diverse groups – governments, companies, and the media – and conducted everywhere, even in war-torn countries. Millions of polls are out there, but most of them are proprietary, because they are done by private companies for individual clients, and as such never see the light of day.
Although market research makes up the vast majority of polling, many surveys are also conducted in the public interest. It is in this specific but important space that the Environics Institute works, undertaking public opinion and social values research on issues of interest to society writ-large, the findings of which are released to the general public. The questions are different and everybody gets to see the results, building our collective understanding of who we are as a society; for these reasons, although public opinion research undertaken for public consumption makes up only a fraction of all of the polls that are out there, it is vital.
Who in the world is active in this sphere? The Environics Institute recently conducted an analysis to find out who else is conducting public interest research.
Public opinion research in the public domain is produced by several different types of organizations:
- Not-for-profit organizations;
- Organizations with links to academic institutions;
- Organizations with links to governments and international organizations; and
- Private companies.
Global representation. Possibly due to language constraints (the search was conducted in English and French only) the search yielded 19 organizations from Anglo-Saxon countries – from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Of seven European organizations that were found, two were Europe-wide in scope while the remaining five were French, Swedish, Polish, and Italian.
The search also identified 29 organizations from Latin America, most of which are part of the LAPOP network and collaborate on the AmericasBarometer project (a hemisphere-wide survey on democracy, governance and civic engagement every two years). The Environics Institute is the Canadian partner for the AmericasBarometer.
Elsewhere in the world, there are active research organizations in Asia (one each in Hong Kong, Thailand, and India, the Middle East (Qatar, Palestine, and Jordan), as well as one each in Russia and South Africa.
Not-For-Profit Organizations. There are a number of not-for-profit groups doing research on public opinion and social values across the globe. Not-for-profit survey organizations fall into three broad categories:
- Those whose primary aim is to conduct public opinion research (i.e.: the Pew Research Centre). This group is the smallest, with only a handful of organizations worldwide.
Those for whom survey research is a stream of work, fitting into a broader, usually policy-related, purpose (i.e.: the Asia Foundation, the National Democratic Institute or the Chicago Council on Global Affairs).
- Those for whom survey research is not a primary function, but who might occasionally commission a survey on a topic of interest (i.e.: the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, Samara or the Broadbent Institute). This category includes by far the most number of organizations.
In Canada, the Environics Institute is the only organization in the first category, because the Institute’s primary aim is promoting relevant and original public opinion and social research on important issues of public policy and social change. The Institute aims to ask the important questions that no one else has asked. Organizations in the third category include the Broadbent Institute, the Manning Centre, and the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; these organizations typically conduct one or two surveys a year.
The search also uncovered two organizations that promote public opinion research worldwide. The World Association for Public Opinion Research promotes public opinion research through events, seminars, and as a hub for research. WorldPublicOpinion.Org is a collaborative project supported by a number of foundations, academic institutions, and not-for-profits; it aims to give voice to public opinion research that engages international issues.
Organizations Linked with Academic Institutions. Of 67 groups found through our search, 25 were organizations that are nested within academic institutions. Because social science researchers find public opinion data very valuable – we regularly grant requests from academics that would like to use our Focus Canada data! – universities often house their own institutes for public opinion research. For example, the ABAC Poll Research Centre at Assumption University is a Thai institute; Laboratory Analysis of Political and Social (LAPS – title is a translation) is Italian; NORC at the University of Chicago is American; and the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong conducts regular public opinion research, eliciting responses from across China. A notable hybrid, YouGov has partnered with the POLIS Department at Cambridge.
Organizations Linked with Governments and Intergovernmental Organizations. Finally, public opinion research organizations can be linked with governments, to varying extents. Some organizations are essentially not-for-profits but they are established by statute and receive regularized funding; others can be run directly by government institutions. Our search yielded three such organizations:
- Eurobarometer is run under the European Commission; it publishes surveys twice per year on issues of importance to the European Union and has been in existence since 1973;
- The Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) is a publicly-funded Polish research institute. CBOS primarily researches domestic social, economic and political issues;
- Finally, the Human Sciences Research Council was established in 1968, by statute, as South Africa’s statutory research agency. It has grown to become the largest dedicated research institute in the social sciences and humanities on the African continent. It conducts research on a variety of social issues, often using comparative analysis. Though survey research is not the only method that it uses, it does conduct public opinion surveys.
Private Companies. Although the public opinion research of private firms is often proprietary, some companies do frequently publish polls as well. Gallup International, perhaps the most famous name in survey research worldwide, fits in this category. It does regular surveys in 140 countries and publishes results. Two others that you might not have heard of are YouGov, a British firm, and Ifop, which is French.
Polls and surveys surface in the news frequently, but these often have to do with political horseraces or cover social issues in a superficial way, because the function of these polls is to provide click-bait to augment the public profile of a private company. Although there are few organizations engaged in public opinion research for the public domain – compared to those engaged in market research, at least – the work that is done by these organizations is critically important to the sustainment of vibrant, pluralistic societies.
Found an interesting public opinion study? Share it with us on Twitter at @Environics_Inst , or send us an email and we might post about it!
Public trust in institutions: Latest Global Trust Barometer finds widening gap between trust in business and governments
The results of the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer were released January 20, 2014, the latest edition of an annual global study that has been conducted by the world’s largest public relations firm since 2000. The study taps public opinion around the world and asks about general trust in four major institutions: government, media, NGOs and business.
This year’s survey polled 33 000 respondents in 27 countries in late 2013 (although the survey is labelled as 2014). In addition to its general sample size of 1000 per country, it focused on a smaller group of 200 to 500 people in each country labelled “informed publics” – people aged 25-64 with a college education and top quartile in income, and report significant media consumption and engagement with news and public policy.
The following countries were surveyed in 2014: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Main Global Findings. In its latest survey, the Trust Barometer found that worldwide trust in business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has remained stable while trust in government and the media had decreased. The global public now trusts NGOs the most and governments the least.
More Informed, More Trust: Consistent with previous years, the survey found that in all countries the “informed publics” group was more trusting than the general public, based on the aggregate trust levels for all four institutions. For Canada, the “informed publics” group is 6% more trusting than the general public, a divide that is on par with most other countries. Data reported by Edelman, with a few exceptions, based its findings on data from the informed publics group.
Business More Trusted than Government: 2014 revealed the biggest ever gap between trust in business and trust in government; now a gap of 14 percentage points globally and the largest since the study began. This latest result reflects trust in business remained unchanged from 2013, while trust in government is down four points globally.
The gap between business and government has grown in a number of countries but notably in the US the US, where trust in government declined by 16 points over the past year (to 37%). By comparison, Americans trust in business is down only five points (to 58%).
Canadian Companies Trusted Highly: Companies headquartered in Canada are the fourth most-trusted worldwide (78%), very close behind Germany (80%), Sweden (79%), and Switzerland (79%). This high rating is despite recent scandals surrounding SNC Lavalin, which resulted in a huge jump in the number of Canadian firms listed on the World Bank’s blacklist (from 0 to 115). American companies are in the middle of the pack, while the BRIC countries and Mexico headquarter the least trusted companies worldwide.
Google Can Rejoice: globally, the public trusts the information gleaned from online search engines as much as traditional media, and more than hybrid media, social media, and owned media.
Canada-Specific Findings. As in past years, Canada places highly in the Global Trust Barometer. Although overall institutional trust declined marginally over the past year (from 62% to 60%), the country’s ranking inched up from 8th to 7th place, and is now tied with the Netherlands and higher than every other western democracy included on the survey. The latest year-over-year rating interrupts several years of consistently rising trust levels; between 2008 and 2013 Canadians’ trust in their institutions rose by 14 percentage points. It remains to be seen whether this past year reflects an aberration or a new downward trend.
Canadian trust in specific institutions:
- NGOs: While trust in NGOs rose globally in 2014, it declined in Canada (from 73% to 67%). Canada continues to be in the middle of the pack among countries surveyed.
- Media: Consistent with global trends, Canadian trust in media decreased slightly, but remains above the global average. Canadians trust media more than the US and all European countries except for the Netherlands. By comparison, trust in the media is much higher in such countries as China, India, Indonesia, UAE, and Singapore.
- Business: Canadians’ trust in their business community has strengthened over the past year (from 58% in 2013 to 62% in 2014), with this growth stronger than in other western democracies.
- Government: Canadians’ trust in government declined this year, by slightly more than the global average (from 58% to 51%). Canada has not experienced the steep drop in government trust recorded over the past year in such countries as the US, Mexico, France, Ireland, and Italy. At the same time, trust levels in Canada are now well below the UAE, China and Singapore, and is comparable to such countries as India and Indonesia.
Conclusions. Measuring trust is useful for two reasons:
Trust as socially desirable: Trust is important because it shapes how we engage with one another and enables us to rely on others, an essential characteristic for complex societies. As Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow has pointed out, trust is important to nearly all economic activities, and so it is in everyone’s benefit when trust levels are high. The 2014 Trust Barometer shows that, globally (and in Canada), public trust in institutions has declined since 2013, though NGOs have retained high levels of trust. Moreover, some countries – such as UAE, Singapore, China, and Indonesia – have higher trust levels across the board.
Trust as a litmus test: Changes in trust levels (over time or between institutions) provides important feedback on how well these institutions are meeting societal needs and citizens’ expectations. From this perspective, trust levels should be responsive to events because trust indicates that the population believes institutions are doing a good job. The 2014 Trust Barometer reveals that governments in many countries are losing ground in earning the trust of their citizens, while trust in other institutions are holding steady.
At the same time, it is important to note that trust is not always the same thing as public satisfaction or support for institutional performance or policies. In Canada, for instance, overall trust in government as an institution (51%) remains well above public approval of the federal government’s performance (based on recent national surveys).
Majority of US households now rely on cell phones
No one device or piece of technology is more typical of today’s world than the ubiquitous cell-phone.Worldwide estimates for 2012 suggest there were 6.8 billion cell phone subscribers (about 96 out of 100 individuals) and likely growing. This compares with only 1.2 billion fixed landline phone subscriptions (16.5 per 100 people), and likely shrinking. This trend is changing society in many ways, one of which is the way in which public opinion and consumer surveys are conducted. In the 1970s through 1990s, most households in developed countries had landline telephone service, and it was these devices that provided the most effective means of conducting sample surveys with large populations.
Today, it is becoming increasingly difficult to successfully survey general publics by telephone through landlines alone.The latest facts confirming this reality was recently issued by the National Center for Health Statistics, as part of its ongoing surveys of US households. For the period January to June 2013, almost four in ten (39.4%) American homes had only wireless or cell-phone service, with another 15.7 percent receiving all or most calls on wireless telephones despite also having a landline service. Combining these groups means that well over half (55.1%) of US households are effectively cell-phone only. Ten years ago this proportion was well under 10 percent. Today, fewer than one in ten US households have a landline telephone and no cell-phone service.
What types of American households are most likely to use only cell-phones? Not surprisingly, it is households with adults aged 18 to 34, as well as adults living with unrelated roommates, adult renters, and those living in poverty (in all cases the cell-phone only incidence is over 50%).
What about Canadian households? Wireless use is lower in Canada because of the higher cost of service plans, and this is reflected in the data. The last federal government study is now more than three years old (2013) when Statistics Canada estimated the incidence at 13 percent (roughly half the percentage recorded in the US for that year). The CRTC projectsthat this proportion might reach 20% by the year 2015, which means the best estimate for 2013 would be approximately 17.2%.
Lower levels of cell-phone only households Canada place somewhat less pressure on Canadian researchers who still count on landline contacts for surveys, but the challenges are essentially the same. An excellent analysis by Phoenix Strategic Perspectives for the federal government concluded that the practice of including cell-phone only households in telephone survey research “is in a state of flux because the implications . . . are not yet fully understood.” There is increasing use of what are called “dual frame” samples (combining landline and cell-phone sample frames), but there has not yet been sufficient experience or investigative research on which to base clear methodological standards for how this should be done. But surveys on cell-phones are here to stay, and may become the industry standard before we know it.
Polling the Experts: What Trends will Drive Global Events in 2014?
Each year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) produces a report – the Outlook on the Global Agenda – which outlines the perspective developed by their network of global experts on challenges and opportunities for the upcoming year. This year, the report identified ten trends, ranked by the level of global significance attributed to each by survey respondents, on a scale of one to five.
Click here to read the report in full.
This year’s report is interesting for two reasons. First, the method for producing the report was changed this year, expanding the use of survey data. Although the report surveys experts only, it provides an expert-level window into ongoing global issues. Second, although the report’s orientation is global, there are several issues on which North American experts responded differently than experts from other regions.
Although survey data has always been part of the report, this year the role of survey data was expanded. In the past, survey data had only been included as a way to identify important trends, but this year the survey was made more comprehensive and specific. In addition to asking respondents to identify important trends, the survey also asked questions about why they matter, who they affect and what to do about them.
NORTH AMERICA AND THE TRENDS
Asked to rate the key challenges facing North America in 2014, the top three issues that experts identified were: income inequality, unemployment, and climate change. Although economic issues were globally ubiquitous, it is noteworthy that North America is the only region for which climate change was rated among the top challenges.
How did North America fit within the global trends?
Experts from North America, more than their counterparts in other regions, thought that these trends will be important to the region in 2014:
- Widening Income Disparities: North American experts saw increasing inequality as the number one trend facing our region. The report also drew from the Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project to note that 60% of North Americans believe their economic system favours the wealthy. (The data for Canada is similar, at 58%). Aside from a few outliers, this is about the same or lower than the percentage of people that believe their economic system favours the wealthy in other regions.
- Intensifying Cyber Threats: Notably, the chart distinguishes between the United States (which rated the significance at 4.10) and North America as a whole (which rated significance at 4.08), suggesting that Canadian and Mexican experts were less concerned about this trend than their American counterparts.
- Inaction on Climate Change: of all top ten trends, survey respondents were least satisfied with the level of attention that the world is giving to climate change. When the general public is asked about how serious the problem of climate change is, Americans rate climate change less seriously than most other countries, while Canada is somewhere in the middle. That North American experts see climate change inaction as a more significant issue than other regions suggests a schism between global policy experts and the general public on the issue of climate change.
Experts from North America considered these issues less significant than their counterparts in other regions:
- Diminishing Confidence in Economic Policies: to provide context for this result, the report includes data from the Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project on the percentage of people that say the economic situation in their country is bad. Although 65% of Americans have a negative outlook of their economic situation, this is only 32% for Canada – putting our country in a small group of optimistic countries encompassing Germany, Australia, and China.
- Lack of Values in Leadership: notably, this section also dealt with secularism in politics. Experts were asked whether religious leaders should have influence in politics; for both North America and the Middle East and North Africa, 48% of respondents said that religious leaders should have no influence. This implies similarity in the approach of experts in both regions to secularism; however, it is important to remember that this survey did not ask the public at large.
As we have seen, regional experts rate different global challenges as more or less important, suggesting what most already know: although some challenges are global, their epicenter is usually routed in particular regions.
DEFINING A GLOBAL AGENDA?
The WEF crowd sources experts through its networked Global Councils to anticipate the challenges of 2014 – it is a novel approach to policy formulation and a good way to get around disciplinary boundaries.
However, survey data should be expanded further. Although the regional breakdowns were valuable, survey responses could be broken down further. Were business leaders more likely than experts from government or academia to find a particular trend important? How does this data break down on a country-to-country level? The surveys could eventually provide useful trend data as well, allowing analysts to track how the significance attributed to certain issues has changed over time.
Finally, while expert opinion is valuable, there is a danger in presenting the aggregate view of regional experts as representative of how a region thinks about a given trend. This danger is evident in the Outlook’s coverage of climate change, for example. The report claims that “people all around the world aren’t happy with the amount of attention climate change receives.” This may very well be true, but the only substantiation provided is data from the survey of experts. But the obstacle to action isn’t convincing experts that more must be done; climate change action has been a political problem largely because the public remains skeptical of climate change, uncertain of its effects, and unwilling to accept the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Irrespective of whether this is changing (our data shows that climate change skepticism is declining in Canada) the Outlook would be better served by including public opinion data alongside expert opinion more frequently and asking the public the same questions.
Canada’s public sector among the least corrupt worldwide, but losing ground
Transparency International has just released its annual report on public sector corruption around the globe. The 2013 Corruptions Perception Index (CPI) covers 177 countries, and is based on assessments from 13 independent organizations specializing in governance and business climate.
As in past years, countries rated as the least corrupt include Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Sweden, all with index scores of 89 or higher out of a possible 100 (a perfect score). At the other end of the continuum are such countries as Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea (with scores under 15 out of 100).
Canada has rated highly on this index since it was launched more than 10 years ago, placing in the top 10 countries over most of this period. For 2013, Canada’s CPI score is 81, placing it ninth among 177 countries worldwide. This rating is down from the 84 it received last year, and continues a steady downward trend since 2010 when it peaked at 89 (and placing 6th in the world). This decline suggests that the various corruption scandals happening at the municipal, provincial and federal levels across Canada are taking their toll on the country’s reputation abroad.
Agencies rating Canada include Bertelsmmann Foundation Sustainable Governance Indicators 2014, Freedom House Nations in Transit 2013, IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2013, and the World Economic Forum’s Executive Opinion Survey 2013.
When truth and politics collide: Survey research on doping in sport
Public opinion and market research is widely commissioned by organizations of all types to answer important questions and help guide decision-making. Sometimes, however, the answers generate surprises and dilemmas if they do not conform to expectations or values. An excellent example of this was reported last August in the New York Times (August 23) concerning research into doping practices in international sporting events.
As reported in the NYT, in 2011 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned a team of researchers to answer the longstanding question about the true prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs among world-class track and field athletes. The researchers surveyed more than 2,000 elite athletes participating in the 2011 World Championships and 2011 Pan-Arab Games, using established methods to provide respondents with a guaranteed means of answering questions about doping without any chance of revealing their identity.
What did they find? Almost three in ten (29%) of the athletes surveyed acknowledged they had doped in the past year. This is in sharp contrast to the WADA data from 2010 where only 2 percent of drug tests were positive. This new research provides compelling evidence that doping in the track and field world may be much more common (and normative for athletes) than most authorities have known or at least acknowledged. This conclusion has enormous and disruptive implications because it suggests doping goes far behind a handful of deviant athletes, and that current drug-testing protocols are largely ineffective. The research reveals what prominent anti-doping scientist Don Catlin described as “profound” and “disturbing” numbers.
How did WADA respond to these findings? Despite the researchers’ desire to publish the findings for broader consumption, WADA chose instead to delay release in favour of further review and combining these data with other ongoing research that includes blood testing. Was this study too provocative for WADA to accept? There is no way to know at this stage, but it is revealing how the NYT ended its article with quotes from Canadian Dick Pound, former WADA Chairman, who stated: “ There is no general appetite to undertake the effort and expense of a successful effort to deliver doping-free sport”, and that “nobody wants to catch anybody . . . Countries are embarrassed if their nationals are caught. And sports are embarrassed if someone from their sport is caught.”
Much of the time, good research provides just what was ordered, and the press releases roll on. And sometimes, the data reveal uncomfortable truths that challenge fundamental values, assumptions and and mission statements. It is perhaps these latter cases where research serves its most important function for society and the public interest.
UN World Happiness Report 2013 – Why it matters
The United Nations second report on World Happiness (2013) was recently released and with considerable media attention. It is newsworthy because “happiness” is a popular topic but one that only recently has been taken seriously by national governments and global agencies like the UN and OECD. What makes this notable is that “happiness” (defined in this context as “life satisfaction” more than “emotional state of mind”) is an explicitly subjective dimension of population and individual experience.
Happiness and well-being have always been valued as important, but in the industrialized world has been measured indirectly, through income, economic activity, and infrastructure (GNP being perhaps the most obvious example). It has long been assumed that such economically-defined factors are key determinants of happiness and life satisfaction, but the the research presented in this report takes the important next step by testing these assumptions directly. And it does so using established social scientific empirical methods, and taking a truly global perspective (encompassing 130 countries).
Most media coverage of this report has focused on the global ranking of happiness, and looks at where particular countries stand. But there is much more to this material that is well worth paying attention to:
- It demonstrates convincingly that “happiness” can be measured in a conceptually meaningful way, based on established and credible social scientific theory, and an extensive body of literature;
- It provides quantifiable measures of happiness across countries and cultures, which may represent one the greatest challenges in this type of research (given that happiness is subjective and can be culturally-specific); and
- The research provides the basis for directly testing underlying assumptions about the determinants of happiness, and the extent to which it is tied to economic security and wealth.
The data reveal six factors make the most difference in determining happiness worldwide: social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption (in ones country), national GDP per capita, and healthy life expectancy at birth. But above and beyond this analysis, the report also found that “mental health is the single most important determinant of individual happiness (in every case where this has been studied).”
The report also takes the next steps by documenting evidence of the “objective” benefits of happiness/life satisfaction (in economic and social terms), and also how this type of research can be used to improve public policy at the national and sub-national levels (as is now being done in some countries).
Apart from presenting important findings and insights, this report demonstrates the capabilities of social research to inform us about how we are doing, and how progress can be made. As the report concludes “By assessing subjective well-being as well as economic variables, a society can gauge whether overall next progress is positive in terms of raising overall well-being.”
How is Canada doing? How is Canada doing in terms of the UN-defined measures of happiness and life satisfaction? Canadians are among the happiest people worldwide, and have shown notable resilience over recent years in comparison to many other countries.
As in the previous UN happiness report, Canada places in the top 10 among 130 countries, along with other smaller northern nations (e.g., Scandinavian, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria), plus Australia. Between the pre-recession (2005-2007) and post-recession (2010-12) periods, Canada’s level of happiness has held steady, in comparison with declining levels in the USA and much of Western Europe, South Asia and the Middle East/North Africa. The largest gains in overall happiness were recorded in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Corruption in our public institutions – What the public sees in 2013
Public institutions like our governments, police, courts, military and the media, are ostensibly in place to organize society and ensure there is a common set of rules to protect us and govern human and commercial interactions. They arguably are the cornerstones of our modern world. But our institutions do not always play by the rules they set, and in many places they are paid little heed.
This reality provides the impetus for the global non-profit organization Transparency International (TI), whose mission is to raise awareness of the damaging effects of corruption and promote measures to tackle it. TI has just released its annual global study of public experience with, and perceptions of, corruption in their country’s public institutions. This year’s study, the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, was based on public opinion surveys conducted with 114,000 respondents in 107 countries.
2013 Findings. The main findings paint a troubling picture of corruption around the world: More than one-quarter (27%) of citizens report having paid a bribe in the previous 12 months, most institutions are seen as corrupt by significant proportions, and governments are seen as largely ineffective in fighting corruption and more heavily influenced by powerful interests.
Not surprisingly, experience with bribery varies dramatically around the world. It is generally most widespread in African countries like Sierra Leone (84% paid a bribe in the past year) and Liberia (75%), and lowest in Australia, Denmark, Finland and Japan (1% in each). At the same time, the belief that there is corruption in public institutions is clearly evident in almost all countries. A notable percentage of citizens say that corruption is “a very serious problem” in such countries as the United Kingdom (27%), the USA (38%), Japan (48%), Germany (37%) and France (47%), and comprises a strong majority view in such nations as Brazil (70%), Russia (79%), South Africa (74%) and Indonesia (74%).
Global trends. An important question not addressed in this latest report is how public perceptions of corruption have changed over time, which is surprising given that TI has been conducting this survey almost every year since 2003. This question matters because it speaks to whether citizens are maintaining or losing confidence in their public institutions over time.
The answer can be found through previous TI reports (published on their website). Not all of the same survey questions are repeated each year, but the available data indicates that public perceptions of corruption on a global basis have changed very little over the past decade. The average corruption “score” for a defined set of 6 to 12 public institutions (e.g., political parties, police, military) across all countries has held steady at 3.3 out of 5 between 2004 and 2013 (on a scale from “1 - not at all corrupt” to “5 - extremely corrupt”). This suggests that public opinions about corruption may be more endemic than dynamic, and not much influenced by who forms governments or what policies are implemented.
Where does Canada fit? How does Canada compare with other countries, in terms of citizen views about corruption in public institutions? Not surprisingly, bribery is very uncommon relative to many other places, with only three percent of Canadians reporting to have paid a bribe in the previous year (compared to a global average of 27%). Similarly, Canada scores highly on TI’s separate Global Perceptions Index, consistently scoring in the top 10 countries (this measure is based on expert assessments, rather than public opinion).
At the same time, many Canadians believe there is persistent corruption in their public institutions. A majority consider corruption to be a serious (24%) or very serious (30%) problem in the public sector, 55 percent believe their governments are ineffective in fighting corruption, and a similar proportion (54%) believe the country’s government is run by a few big entities acting in their own best interest.
Views about corruption in specific institutions vary somewhat, being higher for political parties (3.8, out of 5), Parliament (3.4) and business (3.4), and lowest for NGOs (2.7), medical and health services (2.7), the education system (2.7) and the judiciary (2.8). For most institutions, Canadian marks are more positive than the global average, especially in the case of police and the judiciary; the notable exception is for religious bodies which Canadians are more likely to see as corrupt (3.0 versus 2.6 globally).
Finally, are perceptions of corruption in Canada widening over time? Other research suggests that Canadians have lost confidence in many of their public institutions over the past decade, notably in their politicians and in Parliament (see the AmericasBarometer 2012 report for Canada). But this trend does not extend to views about corruption: The averaged corruption score across institutions has held steady at 3.0 (out of 5) from 2004 through 2013, apart from one blip up to 3.2 in 2006. Despite recent controversy about the actions of political parties (e.g., robocalls), corruption scores for this institution are essentially unchanged over time. Since 2004 there has been a modest improvement in perceptions of the judiciary, and corresponding declines in perceptions of business and religious bodies.
This research suggests that, as in many other countries, Canadians have a general view about corruption in public institutions that is not based on personal experience, specific events or which political parties form government. At the same time, there are likely important regional and demographic differences in perspective that are not addressed in TI reports (or available in their data sets). The Environics Institute’s AmericasBarometer 2012 study shows that Quebecers are much more likely than other Canadians to see government corruption as common, and that this view in that province has increased noticeably since 2008.
How survey research helps us better understand how we cope with disaster: The case of Superstorm Sandy
Severe weather events are on the rise (as climate scientists have been predicting) and this trend is making itself felt in Canada, most recently with record flooding in Calgary and Toronto. Media coverage is extensive, and the dollar cost of the losses are being added up. What is much less clear is the human and social costs of such events: how people have been affected, how they are coping with the disruption and loss, and the extent to which they are recovering.
So it is especially welcome to see a thoughtful study that looks at these very questions in the case of Superstorm Sandy which devastated the coastal areas of New York and New Jersey last fall (which devastated many communities, killed 130 people and caused property damage in the tens of billions). The study is based on an extensive public opinion survey conducted by the non-profit Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Research. The purpose of this research was to: 1) measure the extent of the storm’s impact on individuals and neighbourhoods six months after the storm; and 2) understand how neighbourhood characteristics and social factors make a difference in people’s recovery and resilience.
Not surprisingly, for many people Superstorm Sandy “had a significant and prolonged impact on daily living.” More than half of the population in the affected regions reported being affected personally by the storm, and one in four were “extremely” or “very” affected. Impacts included power outages, disrupted employment and school routines, damaged homes (in many cases irreparably) and medical problems. Six months later, a modest majority said their neighbourhoods have completely recovered, but more than one in six report the recovery is halfway or less, and for one in 20 they believe their neighbourhood will never completely recover.
More interesting are the findings linking social cohesion and trust in others to the speed and success at which residents have been able to recover from the storm’s impact. People living in slowly recovering neighbourhoods were less likely to believe others can be trusted or felt the storm brought out the best in people, and also more likely to report anti-social behaviour during or shortly after the storm (e.g., hoarding of food and water, vandalism, looting). While these results do not establish a clear causal relationship, they provide valuable evidence that social connections and personal networks (e.g., social capital) matter in times of disaster and crisis. The study also found that individuals affected by the storm looked first to family and friends for assistance, and considered them the most helpful (in comparison with first responders, governments and insurance companies).
What can we learn from this research? First, that this type of social research can play an important part in understanding how severe weather and other disasters affect individuals and communities, by providing data and insight on aspects of impact, response, recovery and resilience that cannot be measured in any other way. Second, community preparedness is more than about infrastructure, public education and first responders; social capital in affected neighbourhoods is another critical dimension that warrants greater attention as our cities prepare for the next big storm.