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Steps forward, steps back: how the world deals with priorities

Steps forward, steps back: how the world deals with priorities

It's easy to voice an opinion as to what the government of the day should focus on; it's much harder to deliver it. When presented with a set of conflicting and connected priorities, do our responses change? How do we even try to address the threats and challenges of tomorrow, while simultaneously trying to address the many, increasing, threats of today?

The Economist has launched Priorities of Progress, a report based on surveying people in over 50 countries, asking what they see to be their countries' challenges, threats, and opportunities. Overall, the most respondents saw healthcare as the biggest priority for their government to address. There is general optimism about the future according to feedback, and that technology is generally a force for good. The scores drop, however, when it comes to how content people are with their governments (18% in the American continent, 22% in Europe).

We asked Irene Mia, of the Economist Intelligence Unit, about the findings.

In terms of the "contentedness" of how their governments are being run, do you believe that the low score of Europeans is partly due to the issues onset by populism across the continent (Brexit, AfD, Viktor Orban)?

IM: I think it is probably the opposite, in the sense that populism across the continent is likely a reflection of deep discontent among large segments of the population who feel they have been ignored for too long and feel their governments (and supernational governments, like the EU) don't listen to their needs and priorities.

What are your thoughts on the environment being priority 6, given that climate change will become the dominant force of our era?

IM: It is an interesting finding. My personal view on this is that the environment preservation is probably seen as a less pressing need than healthcare, social security and education, which are all much more tangible and close to our day to day life. Moreover, the debate about climate change is still quite technical and not every citizen will have a complete understanding on the connection between global warming and environmental disasters for instance.

This points to the need for governments, NGOs and all relevant stakeholders in the sustainability space to better communicate to the general public the imperative of combatting climate change.

Just 50% of millennials believe that society is improving. Are you surprised by this? What do you believe are the reasons behind the score?

IM: The way I would look at this is that although only half of millennials believe that humanity is moving toward a better society, this is the highest percentage across all generations. So, in general, millennials seem to be more optimistic than older generations. This probably reflect a much more open and connected generation which looks at the world in a more optimistic way, but this is of course a generalisation.

Also, why, in your view, is business seen as a force for good within millennials? Given the recent unethical practices of Facebook, Uber, Amazon and other multinationals, is this something which tallies with your own thoughts?

IM: Yes, I did find this result quite surprising myself. It is true that the view of businesses as actor of positive change could contrast with what we have seen in the news lately. However, there are two sides of the same coin. If we take Facebook or Uber, they can be both attacked for some of their shortcomings and praised for connecting the world or offering the benefits of the gig economy respectively.

Interestingly enough, this could be part of the answer to your question above; millennials, as every other age cohorts, are likely not a monolithic bloc but are divided on how they look at the world, and in this case at the role of businesses as an agent of positive change.

Where do you see the biggest change happening in these responses to future reports?

IM: I'm sure there will be marginal changes… probably not huge ones in next year's report. I suspect access to healthcare, social protection and education as well as a more inclusive society will remain priorities for the short and long term. Although much progress has been achieved in the world at reducing poverty and diseases, economic growth is probably seen as having failed at trickling down to more vulnerable segments of the society. Inclusive growth is likely to be the main challenge for government and all stakeholders going forward.

Are you, personally, optimistic about the future?

IM: Looking at the state of the world at the moment with so much political instability and uncertainty, a part of me feels quite pessimistic. But then again, I also think we are in a very fortunate time of our history, with technologies giving us unprecedented opportunities to access to news and people and participate into shaping our future: one example is the participatory budgeting process highlighted in the report.

I guess it is up to us on how we will use levers at our disposals. It is also a call for an increased focus on equality and education from our governments, to make sure that citizens will be in the position to take the right decisions.

Irene Mia is Global Editorial Director at the Economist Intelligence Unit. To read more insights and analysis from the study, visit the Priorities of Progress website.
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