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Open Society Barometer: 86% worldwide want to live in a democracy

Multitude stride along the newly built bridge at Ikeja after work hours in Lagos, NIGERIA, on March 1, 2023. Activities are yet to wholly pick up after the Saturday Presidential elections.

In September 2023, Open Society Foundations, renowned as the world’s most substantial private supporter of groups championing justice, democratic governance and human rights, introduced the Open Society Barometer. This comprehensive study stands as one of the largest examinations of global public sentiment concerning human rights and democracy, encapsulating opinion polls conducted in 30 countries, engaging over 36,000 individuals and representing a staggering 5.5 billion global citizens.

Seventy-five years after the United Nations’ proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Open Society Barometer resoundingly reaffirms the enduring vitality of democracy. Despite the relentless surge of a ‘polycrisis’ involving authoritarianism and populism, democratic ideals persist in the collective psyche. This survey underscores an unwavering faith in democratic principles, with 86% expressing a desire to live in a democracy and 62% asserting a preference for democracy over alternative systems, figures that appear to confirm the results of other international surveys.

Percentage of respondents per country who say it is important to them to live in a country that is democratically governed. Source: Open Society Barometer 2023, p. 9.

The global consensus further emphasizes the positive impact of human rights, as 72% acknowledge human rights as a force for good in our world. A notable aversion towards authoritarianism prevails, with 80% of respondents dismissing authoritarian regimes as inferior to democracies in delivering citizens’ needs, a sentiment echoed both domestically and internationally. Intriguingly, albeit disconcertingly, authoritarianism does attract a faction, particularly the youth: only 57% of 18-to-35-year-olds favor democracy, in contrast to 71% of older respondents. This nuanced perception illuminates the complexity of contemporary political ideologies.

Only 57% of 18-to-35-year-olds favor democracy

Despite the prevailing democratic ideals, the report sheds light on significant challenges. Across diverse nations, over half the populace believes their countries are headed down the wrong path. Inequitable global application of human rights is also evident, with 42% concurring that Western nations exploit human rights to penalize developing countries. This divide between developed and developing countries is also present when touching upon high levels of debt and lack of climate action as global failures, with the high-income countries as more dutiful to proactiveness : 75% believed that high-income countries should increase their overseas aid, with clear majorities for doing so in all G7 countries, apart from Germany.

Percentage of respondents who believe human rights do not protect them and their families. Source: Open Society Barometer 2023, p. 21.

Examining global priorities, poverty and inequality, and climate change emerge as the two paramount concerns, each affecting 20% of the surveyed population. A staggering 70% express personal anxiety about the impending consequences of the climate crisis. If we look at the respondents’ apprehensions through a national lens, corruption emerges as the predominant worry, highlighting profound distrust in local and national politicians, especially in Africa and Latin America. Trust in charity leaders, religious leaders and international institutions surpasses confidence in local leadership, accentuating the disquieting state of domestic governance. Curiously, the topic of migration, despite media prominence, ranks as a minor concern, resonating with merely 7% of respondents. Only in Turkey, which hosts the most refugees according to the UN Refugee Agency’s Global Trends Report, did migration emerge as the chief concern. This disjuncture underscores the public’s nuanced perspective on pressing issues, revealing intricate layers of societal apprehensions.

Poverty, corruption and climate change are among the predominant worries

Percentage of global respondents who ranked the following challenges facing the world, their country, and individuals today. Source: Open Society Barometer 2023, p. 29.

Lastly, the Open Society Barometer illuminates shifts in spheres of power and politics. The United States and the United Kingdom emerge as leaders aligned with public values, while questions on expanding the UN Security Council reveal a preference for regional powers. Acknowledging China’s ascent, over two-thirds anticipate China becoming the most influential nation by 2030, albeit with varying normative perceptions. On average, 61% agree that lower-income countries should have more say in decision-making. In all G7 countries, the figure is lower.

Percentage of respondents globally who agree lower-income countries should have more say in decision-making. Source: Open Society Barometer 2023, p. 35.

In conclusion, from the Open Society Barometer it is possible to deduce that the people do support democracy and human rights, that they deeply care about climate change and advocate for progressive solutions to global challenges. What we can draw from the disjuncture between positive faith in democratic values and pessimistic sentiments towards democratic practice by politicians, is that the people demand for politicians to rise to their expectations.

It might also be beneficial to briefly take some of the study’s limitations. Firstly, it lacks specific details on interviewees, specifically on age groups and the geographic breakdown between urban and rural areas. Secondly, the reliance on average values overlooks the nuanced precision offered by median figures. Additionally, despite aiming for a standardized sample size of 1,000 people in each country, a lack of proportionality is evident: notably, the equal allocation of 1,000 participants in countries like Poland and India fails to consider their disparate population sizes. To bolster the study’s enduring relevance, conducting it regularly is imperative, ensuring comprehensive insights and sustained significance over time.

Lidia Bilali
Lidia Bilali is a Program Assistant at Democracy Without Borders. She is a student at Sciences Po Paris and currently interning at the Aspen Institute in Berlin.