July 24, 2007

A Rising Tide Lifts Mood in the Developing World

Sharp Decline in Support for Suicide Bombing in Muslim Countries

Summary of Findings

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The planet is a happier place these days, at least in many parts of the world where incomes are low and life is tough … but economies are improving. In particular, as economic growth has surged in much of Latin America, East Europe and Asia over the past five years, people are expressing greater satisfaction with their personal lives, family incomes and national conditions. The picture is considerably different in most advanced nations, where per capita GDP gains have been less robust and citizen satisfaction has changed little since 2002.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project’s 47-nation survey finds that measures of personal and economic satisfaction remain modest in the developing world when compared with measures for advanced nations, but this gap has narrowed. The increasing contentment in developing nations is clearly correlated with sizable increases in per capita gross domestic product that, in most cases, far outpaced the rate of growth prior to 2002.1

Publics in Latin America and Eastern Europe — where per capita GDP has risen markedly in recent years — rate their lives and national conditions far more favorably than they did in Pew’s 2002 wave of interviewing. The same is true in China and India, both of which have experienced sizable gains in real income, and where publics are substantially happier today. The pattern is less pronounced, however, elsewhere in Asia. And in sub-Saharan Africa, where per capita GDP has increased in many nations, overall satisfaction measures are up modestly, at best.

In contrast, levels of personal contentment and satisfaction with annual incomes have been much more stable in North America, Western Europe and Japan, where income growth has been less impressive. Also, unlike in the developing world, satisfaction with national conditions is flat or has declined in most advanced nations where trends are available.

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In addition to examining how people around the world view their own lives, national conditions, and national and international institutions, the survey also provides a detailed look at specific trends within different regions of the world. Most notably, the survey finds large and growing numbers of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere rejecting Islamic extremism.

The percentage of Muslims saying that suicide bombing is justified in the defense of Islam has declined dramatically over the past five years in five of eight countries where trends are available. In Lebanon, for example, just 34% of Muslims say suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified; in 2002, 74% expressed this view. However, Palestinians stand out for their broad acceptance of suicide bombing. Seven-in-ten-Palestinians say this tactic is at least sometimes justified.

The regional analyses also shed light on other major issues. For instance, there is broad support for free-market economic policies across Latin America, despite the election in the past decade of leftist leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In Africa, poverty and widespread deprivation have not diminished optimism about the future. And Muslim publics, particularly those in closest proximity to Iraq, express significant concern that the Sunni-Shia divide driving violence in that country is turning into a broader problem worldwide.

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Globally, Pew’s 47-nation survey shows a clear linkage between real economic growth and views of national conditions. An analysis of changes between 2002 and 2007 finds a correlation between the percentage growth in per capita GDP and the share of a nation’s citizens who are satisfied with the way things are going in their country, and the proportion giving positive overall economic ratings.

GDP growth also is tied to rising levels of personal satisfaction. The number of people who report making personal progress in their lives is up substantially from 2002 in most countries with rapidly growing economies, and is flat or down in many countries where per capita GDP has been relatively stagnant. The same is generally true with measures of overall quality of life and satisfaction with household income. But changes in GDP are not related to all aspects of people’s lives. Other measures of personal contentment, such as job satisfaction or happiness with family life, show no correlation with economic growth. (Commentary on the relationship between economic growth and measures of personal contentment, by Bruce Stokes, international economics columnist for the National Journal.)

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In spite of the economic gains across a broad swath of developing and emerging economies, citizens of rich countries remain far happier and more satisfied than those in poorer nations. In addition, large percentages in many developing countries — even in some where the gains in contentment have been the greatest — report they have not been able to afford food, clothing, and medical care over the past 12 months.

Among the populations of the seven Latin American nations surveyed, no fewer than a quarter (in Argentina) and as many as six-in-ten (in Bolivia and Peru) say there have been times in the past year when they have been unable to afford food. These figures are comparable in the 10 countries surveyed in Africa; in developing countries throughout Asia and the Middle East; as well as in most of the East European nations surveyed. This compares with 16% in the United States, and even fewer in Canada, Japan, and most of Western Europe.

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Rising per capita GDP appears to have had only a modest impact in Africa compared with other parts of the developing world. In absolute terms, Africans remain relatively unhappy with their lives and living conditions. This is the case even in countries like Nigeria, where per capita GDP has increased by 26% over the past five years. Only about a third of Nigerians express a high level of satisfaction with their lives, which is not significantly different from 2002.

Yet as was the case in previous Global Attitudes surveys, more people in Africa than in the other regions surveyed express the view that their lives will be better five years from now. In addition, majorities in most African nations say that when children in their countries grow up they will be better off than people are today. The belief that life will be better for the next generation also is widespread in other poor and emerging countries — notably, 86% of Chinese respondents in the Pew survey look ahead to a better life for their country’s children.

Opinions about the prospects for the next generation are much more negative in many advanced countries. Fully 80% of the French say that when their country’s children grow up, they will be worse off than people are today. Smaller but substantial majorities in Germany, Japan, Italy, Great Britain, the United States and Canada also are pessimists regarding the next generation’s overall prospects.

While the new poll finds dramatic changes in many countries in how people view their lives and financial well-being, evaluations of work and family life have remained more or less unchanged. As in 2002, more people express satisfaction with their family lives than with their jobs or incomes. And as was the case five years ago, satisfaction with family life continues to be greater in advanced nations — especially in North America — than in most developing countries.

Dissatisfaction with family life is relatively high in several African countries, especially Tanzania and Uganda. In both countries, about as many people say they are dissatisfied with the family life as say they are satisfied — the only countries surveyed where this is the case.

For the most part, job satisfaction continues to be greater than satisfaction with family income, even though the latter has risen over the past five years. Among advanced nations, worker satisfaction is greatest in Sweden, the United States and Canada; more than four-in-ten in these countries say they are very satisfied with their jobs.

Among developing nations, workers in Kuwait and India voice the most contentment with their jobs. Job satisfaction is generally low in the African countries surveyed. In addition, 66% of Jordanian workers say they are dissatisfied with their jobs, the highest of any public surveyed.

Views of National Conditions, Governments

FigureTrends in opinions about the course of one’s country are as closely correlated with changing economic fortunes as are people’s views of their own lives. In Latin America, citizens in Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia express far greater satisfaction with national conditions than they did five years ago, when much of the region was mired in a severe financial crisis. And in Argentina, Venezuela and Peru, robust economic growth has been accompanied by a sharp rise in positive views of national governments.

In Western Europe, the publics in Sweden and Spain express broad satisfaction with national conditions, as well as with their governments and current leaders. In contrast, people in France and Italy, which have experienced little growth since 2002, are critical of their nation’s course and their governments. In Eastern Europe, the publics in Russia and Slovakia — where per capita GDP has shown impressive gains — are happier with the course of their country and express more satisfaction with national leaders than they did five years ago.

Among surveyed countries, China has achieved by far the greatest gains in per capita income; per capita GDP has increased 58% since 2002. The Chinese also express much more satisfaction with national conditions than they did in 2002 (83% now vs. 48% then). The Chinese also give near universal support for the national government — fully 89% say the national government has a very good or somewhat good influence on the way things are going in the country.2

The Japanese are more positive about their country’s government and leadership than in 2002, but they continue to be largely critical of their country’s course. In India, by contrast, more people are satisfied with the state of their country, though evaluations of the government and national leadership have remained fairly stable.

Turkey and Jordan have experienced strong economic growth since 2002; on balance, more people in these countries express positive views of their national governments than negative opinions. The Palestinians and Lebanese almost universally deplore the way things are going — just 5% of Palestinians and 6% of Lebanese express satisfaction with conditions — but they express a fair degree of support for their governments and leaders.

FigureAfricans tend to express dissatisfaction with national conditions but endorse their national governments. Nigerians are the exception in expressing divided opinions of their government and new leader, despite strong economic trends over the past five years.

While economic growth is linked with more favorable views of one’s national government, the survey points to several important exceptions to this pattern. For example, Great Britain and the United States have experienced fairly strong economic growth since 2002 when compared with other advanced countries, yet in both countries positive views of the government have declined significantly. And in the Czech Republic, the percent saying that the government is having a good influence on national conditions has fallen from 57% in 2002 to 36% in the new survey, despite robust growth in that country.

Dwindling Muslim Support for Terrorism

Even as many people around the world express more positive views of their lives and countries than they did five years ago, opinions about regional issues and concerns are a mix of good and bad news.

Among the most striking trends in predominantly Muslim nations is the continuing decline in the number saying that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are justifiable in the defense of Islam. In Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia, the proportion of Muslims who view suicide bombing and other attacks against civilians as being often or sometimes justified has declined by half or more over the past five years.

Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable. However, this is decidedly not the case in the Palestinian territories. Fully 70% of Palestinians believe that suicide bombings against civilians can be often or sometimes justified, a position starkly at odds with Muslims in other Middle Eastern, Asian, and African nations.

FigureThe decreasing acceptance of extremism among Muslims also is reflected in declining support for Osama bin Laden. Since 2003, Muslim confidence in bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs has fallen; in Jordan, just 20% express a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, down from 56% four years ago. Yet confidence in bin Laden in the Palestinian territories, while lower than it was in 2003, remains relatively high (57%).

Opinion about Hezbollah and Hamas varies among Muslim publics. Views of both groups are favorable among most predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia. And Palestinians have strongly positive opinions of both militant groups. But majorities in Turkey have negative impressions of both Hezbollah and Hamas.

The survey also finds that, amid continuing sectarian strife in Iraq, there is broad concern among the Muslim publics surveyed that tensions between Sunnis and Shia are not limited to that country. Nearly nine-in-ten Lebanese (88%), and solid majorities in Kuwait (73%) and Pakistan (67%), say Sunni-Shia tensions are a growing problem for the Muslim world, and are not limited to Iraq.

Africa: Bleak Present, Brighter Future

Africa remains a continent of crushing poverty, widespread deprivation — and substantial, if not universal, optimism. Majorities in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania say there have been times in the past year they have been unable to afford food. Even in South Africa, widely viewed as having Africa’s most advanced economy, 49% say they have gone without food in the past year for lack of money. Moreover, relatively large numbers throughout Africa say they have lacked money for other basic necessities — health care and clothing.

FigureThe African publics surveyed tend to express low levels of personal satisfaction, particularly when compared with people in other regions. In no African country do as many as four-in-ten rate their current lives as seven or higher on a scale of zero to 10. However, majorities in nine of 10 African countries surveyed say they believe their lives will be better five years from now than they are today.

The U.S. image is much stronger in Africa than in other regions of the world. This is reflected in the fact that the United States tops the list of dependable allies in eight of 10 African countries surveyed. Yet the U.S. is widely seen as making, at most, a minor effort to address the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. Most Africans say the United Nations or the African Union is doing the most to stop the violence in Darfur.

The survey also finds that, despite overwhelming concern about the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases throughout Africa, fewer than 30% in every country surveyed say they have taken an HIV test. In South Africa, where an estimated 5.5 million people are infected with HIV according to UNAIDS data, just 20% say they have been tested for the virus. However, majorities in South Africa and the other African countries surveyed (except for Mali) say they would be willing to take an HIV test.

A series of in-depth questions asked in Africa — including measures of the state of democracy in African countries and opinions about international media coverage of the region — are the result of a partnership between the Pew Global Attitudes Project and The New York Times. In addition, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation generously provided funding for the surveying in Africa, and in developing nations in other parts of the world.

Latin America: More Favorable Toward Free Markets

FigureLatin America’s improved economic climate is seen in increasingly positive impressions of national conditions and governments. As might be expected, publics in Latin America also are much more upbeat about their nations’ economies than they were five years ago.

In 2002, shortly after the onset of a financial crisis that caused Argentina to default and cost many people their life savings, virtually no Argentines gave the economy a positive rating (1%); today, 45% see the economy as very good or somewhat good. A similar, though less dramatic, pattern is seen in other countries in the region: in Bolivia, positive views of the economy have more than tripled (from 18% to 58%); in Peru they have nearly tripled; and in Venezuela and Brazil positive impressions of the economy have doubled or more. In Mexico, where positive views of the economy were highest in 2002 (at 31%), 51% now say the economy is at least somewhat good.

Left-leaning heads of state have been elected in several Latin American countries over the past decade. However, the new survey finds Latin American respondents generally believe that people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people are rich and some are poor. Many respondents in the poll also expressed support for a strong government social safety net to help people who cannot help themselves.

Global Publics Divided about Their Nation’s Allies

FigureThe polling also underscores the lack of international consensus about the world order reported in this year’s first Global Attitudes report. Notably, the United States is named about as often as a close ally as it is named the biggest threat by respondents in the 47-nation survey. No other single country or international institution was as frequently cited as a top ally or threat, including Iran. (For a more detailed analysis of opinions about the United States and other world powers, see “Global Unease with Major World Powers,” released June 27).

The United States is singled out as a close ally by people in many African nations and in Israel and Kuwait, where the United States remains popular. The publics of two of America’s closest allies, Great Britain and Canada, also regard the United States as their closest ally, despite their criticism of U.S. foreign policies.

By contrast, the publics in many predominately Muslim countries, Latin America, and China see the United States as their greatest potential threat. For example, two-thirds of Chinese (66%) and nearly as many in Turkey and Pakistan (64% each), name the United States as the country that poses the greatest threat to their own country in the future. Majorities in Venezuela (54%) and Argentina (52%) also view the United States as a potential threat.

Top National Problems

Crime, political corruption, drugs, the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, and pollution are mentioned most frequently as top national problems by the citizens of the 47 countries surveyed. But terrorism, the poor quality of drinking water, and religious/ethnic conflict also are high on the problems list. The global findings reveal wide variations in how people in different parts of the world size up the top national problems.

Compared with 2002, somewhat fewer people globally view most of the issues tested as very big national problems. The exceptions are concerns about the poor quality of drinking water and immigration, which remain about as widespread as five years ago.

FigureCrime is clearly the dominant issue in Latin America and in many Asian and African countries. Roughly eight-in-ten citizens in several South American countries — including Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru — cite crime as a very big problem. Comparably high percentages of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Malaysians rate crime as a very big problem. In Africa, worry about crime is near universal in South Africa and quite substantial in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.

Strong concern about illegal drugs runs parallel to worry about crime in these regions of the world and countries. But the publics in several nations — including the United States and Great Britain — voice more worry about drugs than about crime.

Corrupt political leaders rate as a major concern in a diverse group of Middle Eastern countries — Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Israel. But the poll finds that worry about political corruption is most widespread in Nigeria and the Czech Republic.

The spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases is the dominant national concern throughout Africa. In addition, majorities in every Latin American country surveyed — including 79% in Peru — see the spread of infectious diseases as a very big problem.

Concerns about pollution are evident in all parts of the world. But mentions are most frequent in Italy, Peru and India, where about eight-in-ten or more view pollution as a very big problem for their countries. Regionally, worries about pollution are lowest in Africa. In addition, fewer Americans rate pollution as a top national problem than do people in other economically advanced countries.

Poor quality schools are of greater concern in Latin American and African countries than in other regions. By contrast, concerns over poor quality schools are very low in Malaysia — where just 11% see this as a very big national problem — and Sweden (13%). The Swedes express far less concern over most of the problems tested than do the other publics surveyed.

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Italians voice the greatest concern about immigration of any of the publics in the 47-nation survey. In the developing world, South Africans and the Lebanese frequently cite immigration as a very big problem. By contrast, roughly half of the residents of Pakistan, Bolivia and Mexico say that emigration — people leaving their country for jobs elsewhere — is a very big problem. For Lebanon and Pakistan, in particular, both emigration and immigration rate as frequently cited national problems.

  1. Data on trends in gross domestic product (GDP) from IMF World Economic Outlook.
  2. It was not possible to ask Chinese respondents to express opinions about President Hu Jintao.