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WHAT PEOPLE THINK

- Symbolic democracy in the United Nations

Even as it is busy trying to resolve other people’s conflicts in so many parts of the world, the United Nations has recently created a conflict of its own.

It began innocuously enough. The organization has always tried to get consensus around matters on which it is often very difficult to arrive at such consensus. The usual strategy to achieve this is to sufficiently water down the language in its documents. By the time these documents need ratification by individual countries, there is very little that is binding in them, so frequent are the caveats and the nods to escape routes like ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘culture’.

But this time, the stakes are higher because countries are required to sign on to specific and measurable goals. I am talking about what is called the post-2015 or post-MDG (Millennium Development Goals) agenda that the UN and its various arms are currently frantically trying to design.

Consensus building here requires a different strategy and the UN has chosen the strategy of inclusiveness: canvassing and listening to the voices of all kinds of stakeholders. So it has been organizing theme meetings in town halls at national, regional and global levels; with governments, subject experts, civil society groups and the private sector, as well as with important individuals like Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and David Cameron who head a high level panel.The amount of energy, time and money that has gone into organizing and making sense of these consultations could have made a significant dent in a few countries’ poverty if it had been diverted there, but it is probably still not wasted effort because it will help to sharpen the post-2015 agenda as well as make more member states feel invested in it.

But the inclusiveness does not end there. To allow many more voices to enter the conversation, the UN has set up a survey for ordinary citizens of all countries to state an opinion on what will make for a better world. Called My World: The United Nations Global Survey for a Better World, this survey asks individuals to choose six of the most important things that countries should focus on out of a list of 16 (plus one space for priorities that may be missing from that list). These 16 options are loosely based on the 14 items that the secretary general’s report calls for priority action on: poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, gender equality, education, health, hunger, demographic change, migration, urbanization, sanitation, governance and global co-operation.

From a reading of the secretary general’s report as well as of many of the recommendations from the varied consultations and commissioned reports that it draws on, it appears that the post-2015 agenda will be particularly focused on poverty, climate change, employment, health, gender equality and education, roughly in that order. Of course, many of these are overlapping categories, but even if there is some double counting, it may be important for political reasons to specify some of these goals separately. Of these, poverty eradication and climate change will probably be the most central to the post-2015 agenda, given the enormous and still growing empirical evidence on their importance and given the powerful forces pushing for them — the World Bank on poverty and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network on climate change and environmental damage. In addition, a group of 49 countries has just signed a petition urging greater attention to questions of gender, so maybe that contentious item will rise higher up on the agenda as well.

That is all very well. But what will the UN do as it discovers that what the people want is very different from what its member states and its experts recommend? For that is exactly what the survey results thus far show.

The survey provides real time updates on results, categorized by nationality, human development index ranking, gender and age and thus far, an impressive 2.2 million individuals from 194 countries have taken the poll. The overall striking finding is that action on climate change ranks 16th (that is, at the very bottom) on the list of offered priorities.We do not know where poverty eradication ranks because it is not an option in that list. Internet survey takers rarely being very poor themselves, it probably would not get a very high ranking. Certainly, employment generation, the primary eradicator of poverty, is not at the top of anyone’s list; it comes in at three, even for the young and even for respondents from low- and middle-income countries. Amazingly, gender equality comes in at number nine; not very reassuring for the numerous advocacy groups that insist that gender mainstreaming and gender parity are central to development. Overwhelmingly, it is education that comes out on top, except for the 55+ age group to whom, not surprisingly, it is healthcare that is at number one with education being second. For the rest, healthcare follows education, and employment usually jostles with better government for third or fourth place.

What is one to make of this apparent reversal of priorities between the experts and the people? How will the UN reconcile the contradiction in its final post-2015 documents and still cling to commitment to democracy?

My guess is that it will do a lot of statistical juggling. To begin with, these global results are skewed by the large number of Indians —2,36,000 — that have taken the survey. This is not a natural outcome of population size; China has only some 6,000 responses, while Nigeria, with a total population of 166 million, comes a surprising second with 1,70,000 responses. The size of the Indian response is probably related to the middle-class Indian’s inordinate love of technology and its nationalistic love of competition: as international polls of the ‘most important individual of the century’ or ‘of the year’ have discovered to their dismay, Mahatma Gandhi or Amitabh Bachchan always come out on top.

But it is not the Indian sample alone that drives the global results. Even if one looks at other countries with relatively large numbers of responses, the UN’s implicit ordering is not matched by the survey. Climate change comes at the bottom for Nigeria, at number 12 for Brazil, 11 for China and 10 for the United States of America. Gender equality does almost as poorly — 13 in Nigeria, 11 in Brazil, 15 in China. In the US, it is at number eight — but that is because of American women, who rank it at six; American men place it low down at 12. On this, in fact the Indians do pretty well (or they are more upfront about the very gender problems that they live by in their own practices) — it gets a rank of six and there is barely a difference between men and women’s rankings.

There are, of course, many other ambiguities in this kind of survey that the UN can use to disregard the stark differences with the official post-2015 discourse. These include the socio-economic skewing of the respondents in general; the lack of clarity on whether the respondents are choosing what they want for themselves or their countries or the world; the design of the survey questionnaire. We also do not know how many people identified an item that is not on the list. For example, population and family planning are not in the list of options given out to vote on. If they were, my fear is that many of these middle-class Indians at least would give it a high ranking, with the underlying understanding, naturally, that it is the others — the poor, the illiterate, the minorities, the villagers — that cause the population problem.

All these explanations for the survey results are only partially true and the fact remains that most ordinary people do genuinely have a different set of beliefs about the world’s problems from the experts associated with the UN.

It will be interesting to see whether and how much these differences enter the ultimate ratification process. It will not be surprising if they do not come in very seriously; this is an exercise in politically correct democratic functioning whose role is symbolic (in this case symbolic of the intent to be inclusive) rather than literal. Nor will it be very disappointing; rocket science is not the only subject in which we don’t need to all have an opinion that is to be taken seriously.