A shrinking economy, political crises and weak job prospects are just a few of the issues occupying the minds of people all around the world. Depending on country of origin, respondents’ answers vary quite considerably with regard to the most important challenges facing the world today: In countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia and Russia, falling purchase power is the primary concern identified as a key challenge for the future. In western industrial countries, the joint issue of immigration and integration is often top priority. However, issues such as unemployment, ailing healthcare systems and governmental instability are, in some places around the world, identified as the key challenges.
The majority of Nigerians are in agreement: Inflation and the falling purchase power this entails are problems to which a solution must be found as a matter of urgency. Overall, 67% of consumers in Nigeria assess this as the most pressing concern for the country. In comparison with other countries, nowhere is there greater consensus with regard to the main challenges in the respondents’ countries of origin. And this comes as no surprise: The collapse in the price of crude oil has slashed Nigeria’s GDP. As a result, its currency has weakened and imports have become more expensive. In 2016, the rate of inflation was well into double-digit territory (see World Bank).
In a global context, respondents from other countries are also particularly preoccupied with the challenge of getting by financially each month. While the inflation rates in Indonesia and Russia are certainly below Nigeria, a third of respondents from these countries still assess price stability as the key contemporary political issue in their countries. These are the results of the long-running “Challenges of Nations” study in which GfK Verein asked open-ended questions (i.e. without providing multiple choice answers) to 27,517 people from 24 countries in the first quarter of 2017 about the most pressing issues currently facing the respondents’ respective countries.
Even when prices remain stable and the purchase power in a country offers no grounds for concern, life can be tough without a regular paid job. The issue of unemployment is still on the agenda particularly in Spain, even several years after the financial crisis. While unemployment has been falling over the past few years, job prospects often remain limited, especially for young people. It is little wonder, then, that improved prospects continue to be assigned high priority: Combatting unemployment is a pressing issue for 61% of Spanish respondents – a clear majority. In France and Italy, this issue takes priority for huge swathes of respondents too: 51% and 46% of French and Italian respondents respectively currently view implementing measures to improve weak job prospects to be the most important challenge facing their country. This figure is slightly lower, at 30%, for Indian respondents. On viewing the official unemployment data, it may initially seem surprising that this issue is afforded such importance. However, the reality of the situation in India is viewed a little differently, for example by the Swiss journalist Bernard Imhasly who knows the country well. He believes that there is a high degree of covert unemployment. This refers to people not taken into consideration by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), an official Indian governmental body, as they perhaps earn a living in the informal sector (see The Globalist) or by definition are not strictly unemployed (see 'Indien - ein Länderportrait' (India – a country portrait). Moreover, India is attempting to combat the consequences of what is known as the “demographic bonus” (see Heinrich Böll Foundation): In the future, a very young population will emerge, with a huge number of (often poorly qualified) young workers starting out in their careers and competing with each other for a relatively limited number of jobs. This threatens to upset the balance of an age group ratio which is currently working in India’s favor.
The influx of refugees in recent times and how to deal with immigration have made their mark in the minds of German citizens. How can the country cope with such a huge number of people seeking help? More than one in every two German respondents (56%) regard this as a question to which an answer must urgently be found. A similar picture emerges in Austria (53%), a country through which numerous migrants travelled heading for destinations in Germany, particularly in 2015 and 2016. Around one third of Swiss respondents (36%) also view this as one of the most important tasks facing their country. The same goes for very nearly as many Swedes (35%). The reasons for this are likely to above all be found in the fact that the population of Sweden is composed of a particularly large number of refugees. However, immigration is not just a primary concern for Europe – it is also a pressing issue on the other side of the Atlantic, albeit at a significantly lower level: 17% of American respondents cited immigration as the biggest challenge facing the USA.
What would happen if you were to be suddenly taken ill? Who would pay for a consultation from a doctor or, if need be, an operation? These are questions which are particularly occupying the minds of respondents – to the same extent as unemployment figures – in four of the 24 countries surveyed. Above all, Brazilians are ill at ease in this regard: More than one in two respondents (56%) put this at the top of their rankings of issues facing the country. While the public health service provides free medical treatment for all residents on demand, the system is ailing (see Financial Times). In this context, for example, the hospital equipment, well-trained doctors and often requisite infrastructure (including roads in a state of disrepair) which would be needed in order to provide adequate healthcare to everybody in the largest and most populous South American nation are all lacking. Poor road infrastructure and long distances are hardly the issue in the UK, the Netherlands or in Poland. However, respondents from these countries also identify a need for action in terms of the healthcare sector. For 31% of British respondents, this issue is the main challenge facing the UK. A lack of doctors, a problem which is likely to only be exacerbated by Brexit (see The Guardian), and long waiting times (see The Guardian) are said to be the reasons for this. The latter criticism is also clearly an issue in the Netherlands. According to a dossier published by The Federal Agency for Civic Education, there is still a potential for conflict due to long waiting times for hospital treatment (see 'Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung'). This is often because problems arise in transferring from outpatient to inpatient treatment. Furthermore, debate often rages in the Netherlands with regard to the high proportion of personal contribution costs and the lack of free choice of doctor (see 'Dutch Review') – with all this in mind, one in four Dutch respondents believe it is important to whip the health service into shape. In Poland, 22% of respondents identify the healthcare system as a pressing issue on account of structural problems and chronic underfunding (see PricewaterhouseCoopers).
In the international corruption index published annually by Transparency International (see Transparency International), a non-governmental organization based in the UK, third-world countries have placed at the low end of the rankings for years now. Kenya fared badly again in 2016, having placed 148th out of 176 countries in the study. The population is demanding that proper attention be paid to the grave consequences corruption has on the country: Just over one in every two respondents (51%) independently cited corruption as Kenya’s most important challenge. Kenya is, however, not alone in this regard, although the situation is perceived as being particularly bad in the east African nation. After all, Kenya was the only country in which respondents viewed corruption as the main challenge.
Drug cartels, conflicts between armed gangs and governmental security forces, attacks and gunfights in broad daylight out on the streets – the population of Mexico is still suffering under the burden of widespread criminal behavior. In total, 43% of Mexican respondents see combatting crime as the most important issue facing the country today. The number is nearly as high in South Africa (39%), where the security situation is said to be above all tense in the major cities and their environs.
South Korea mainly hits the headlines these days because of the heated conflict with its neighbors to the north. However, in total, 42% of South Koreans identify economic stability as the country’s most pressing issue at the moment. Other countries are also preoccupied with this issue, although only in South Korea does it take top spot in the rankings.
A slightly different picture emerges in terms of government and politics, an issue which is the greatest source of concern for respondents from three of the 24 countries surveyed. Iranian respondents are above all unsettled by political developments in their country: 40% believe further political reform is the most pressing issue facing the country. While a lack of government is no longer an issue in Belgium, the political system remains excessively complex – with the result that it is even hard to grasp for Belgians themselves! Accordingly, one in every four respondents places the issue of politics/ government right at the top of the list of concerns. Nearly as many respondents (22%) feel the same in Turkey following the attempted coup in 2016 which was resolved far from peacefully.
Japanese respondents are preoccupied with entirely different concerns. Here, family policies take first place – although there is no consensus among the population that this issue requires the most urgent action. Overall, 22% of Japanese respondents express concern at the declining birth rate. The number of newborn babies actually fell to below one million for the first time in 2016 – one possible reason for this could be the difficulty in successfully reconciling family life with work life. A lack of childcare options as well as long, inflexible working hours often stand in the way of starting a family in Japan.
If we take a look at the challenges as seen through European eyes, there is a slight shift in focus in comparison with the global rankings. For example, family policies are not regarded as a pressing issue in Europe. Instead, Europeans are more concerned about the themes of poverty, transport policies and environmental protection – even if these issues are regarded as being of slightly more subordinate importance. In contrast, European respondents tend to be predominantly occupied by concerns about secure jobs. This applies most strongly to the Spanish, French and Italians. The issue of integrating migrants ranks high on the list of concerns in parts of Europe, primarily in Germany and Austria. In contrast, only a small minority of respondents (3%) in Poland, which has hitherto managed to resist taking in waves of refugees quite successfully, cite this issue as the country’s most pressing challenge. The Poles are far more concerned about domestic political issues, especially health service. More than one in five Polish respondents (22%) prioritized healthcare reforms as a main challenge. This value was only exceeded in the Netherlands and the UK.
Changes to the political landscape are a primary concern above all for Belgians and Turks at the moment: In both countries, nearly one quarter of respondents put this issue at the top of the agenda. As a comparison: In Sweden and Russia, the equivalent figure is just 2% in each case – but the reasons for this differ greatly. Despite falling rates of inflation in Russia, Russian respondents are more concerned about purchase power developments. The most important aspect, explicitly cited by 20% of respondents, has little to do with inflation, however. Rather, Russian respondents are keen for wages to increase. Overall, no other country in Europe ranked purchase power as the most pressing concern. In contrast, the Swiss are most concerned with pension provisions: Nearly one in every four Swiss respondents perceive securing pension plans as most urgent challenge.
The midfield of the European rankings is made up of concerns over education policies, crime, economic stability and housing/ rents. Calls for changes to the education system are above all emanating from Austria (14%), Spain and Germany (both 12%). German respondents also lead the way in terms of a desire to better tackle criminal behavior: 16% identify this as the country’s primary objective, which is the same as in France. Italian and Turkish respondents are primarily issuing economic clarion calls: 15% and 14% respectively are demanding efficiency reforms in this sector. In Russia, 16% of respondents believe that affordable housing is an important issue which requires real action.
With the exception of corruption, the bottom reaches of the rankings are made up of aspects which are not factors in the global list of concerns: For example, poverty is an important issue for Germans, with 17% of German respondents ranking this as the main concern. No other European country comes even close to matching this value. In Belgium, people are concerned above all about the situation out on the roads. Nearly one in five Belgian respondents believe transport policy to be the country’s most pressing challenge at the moment. At 16%, Swiss respondents assign great relevance to the environmental issues, whereas the Spanish are above all concerned that corruption is also a factor in Europe. One in four Spanish respondents made combatting corruption their top priority. This is by far the highest value for Europe.
How have the concerns of German respondents changed over the past few years? Which issues have become more relevant, and which are now seen as less important? A time series analysis reveals that current political and societal developments such as immigration, but also the uneven distribution of wealth resulting in a widening gap between the richest and poorest sections of society, have in part replaced earlier issues as primary concerns. Despite its percentage share falling, the issue of immigration and integration retains the top ranking in Germany: 56% of German respondents make this issue the country’s most pressing concern, down from the 83% recorded in 2016. For the first time, combatting poverty came in second place. While this issue was not seen as a priority at all 20 years ago, it is now regarded as an issue of great importance by 17% of German respondents. Fighting crime has also become more relevant over the past few years in Germany. While this issue was regarded as the main challenge for just under one in ten German respondents 20 years ago, the equivalent figure is now 16%. However, fears surrounding jobs in Germany have receded significantly. Only 16% feel a sense of unease about the current job market situation. At nearly 80%, the vast majority of Germans were primarily preoccupied with secure jobs in 1997, while the issue was again highly relevant in 2007 for two thirds of German respondents. The fluctuations over time with regard to the subject of pensions/ old age provisions are far less pronounced: 20 years ago, 15% of German respondents were worried about this issue, whereas today the value has remained stable at 14%.
The issues of purchase power development, education policy and social security occupy 6th, 7th and 8th places respectively in the rankings. These issues are a source of concern for just over one in ten Germans. As far as inflation is concerned, this concern has noticeably retreated into the background over the past seven years. Germans are also quite relaxed in terms of education and social issues. While the current values for these issues are slightly up on those recorded both two decades and one decade ago, they have fallen substantially in comparison with 2010. In contrast, developments on the global political stage and fears linked to terrorism in our increasingly globalized world are more frequently at the forefront of Germans’ minds: These aspects were not even included in the rankings in 2007 or 2008, but today one in ten German respondents believe this is an issue to which a solution must be found. German respondents are, in contrast, quite content with domestic political developments and the government’s work. At 9%, this issue has remained stable for years as a mid-to-lower ranked issue.
Anyone currently on the lookout for a new apartment or dreaming of owning their own house could tell you a thing or two about just how deep you have to dig in some places. While just 3% and 1% of German respondents saw this as the country’s most pressing issue in 1997 and 2007 respectively, the equivalent value for 2017 has climbed to 8%. In contrast, Germans appear to be significantly less perturbed with regard to environmental issues: This value has now more than halved following a sharp rise in 2007 (16%). A challenge which had, up until now, never been a relevant aspect before occupies second-to-last place in the rankings: Problems with Turkey. This is discussed on an almost daily basis in the media, with the result that 5% of German respondents currently identify this as a real cause for concern. Nearly as many respondents in Germany are concerned about the country’s economic stability. In comparison with the peak of the global financial crisis, however, this value has normalized again noticeably.
Sometimes it can be a sudden, catastrophic event such as a terror attack close to home, while on other occasions it is longer-term developments, such as international conflicts, which flare up gradually – all of this serves to influence the global barometer of concerns. The reverse is equally true of positive changes, as can be seen in Germany with developments on the labor market. It is therefore hard to predict how the international agenda will change over the course of the next few years – although it is presumably safe to say that it will not remain the same!
Data source: GfK Challenges of Nations 2017/ GfK Verein/ August 2017
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