What can opinion polls tell us about well-being and revolution? Quite a lot, actually

October 15, 2012 7 By admin

I’m on a plane to Delhi today, to the big OECD conference on ‘Measuring Well-Being for Development and PolicyDelhi logo Making’. In preparation, I dropped in on the scarily smart (in both senses) young pollsters from Gallup. Fascinating, and also vaguely relevant to today’s ‘blog action day‘, on the theme of  ‘the power of we’ – few organizations are better placed than Gallup to tell us what ‘we’ actually think.

Gallup is moving increasingly into working in developing countries, picking up on issues like food security and water and sanitation.

But it was their work on well-being that really got my interest. Since 2005, they have been developing their wellbeing survey methodology, and now run it annually in 161 countries. They divide up the poll questions into two bunches:

Evaluative: Evaluate your life on a scale from 0 to 10 today. Where do you think you will be about 5 years from now?

Experiential: how did you feel yesterday? (well-rested; treated with respect; smile or laugh a lot; learn or do something interesting) What about negative feelings? (physical pain; worry; sadness; stress; anger)

That produces a well-being snapshot across a lot of people (something like 200,000 in the last poll), and the results are a real mix of the expected (Greece and Spain top the list of most worried nations) and the unexpected.

In which latter category I would put their findings on gender and well-being. Globally, women say they have roughly the same degree of life satisfaction as men. The best countries to be a woman (i.e. those where women are most likely to say they are ‘thriving’) are Denmark, Canada and Australia. The worst are Afghanistan, Nepal and Madagascar.

So far, so unsurprising. But when we get onto gender gaps, it gets much more interesting. The biggest gender gap, in terms of men reporting more positively than women are in Ukraine and Vietnam. The list of countries where women are significantly more positive about their lives than men is led by Qatar, Angola, South Korea and Iran.

cartoon-west-vs-eastIf you’re skimming, read that list again. Maybe the cartoonist (left) is onto something? (OK, I’m heading for the bunker right now).

Even more baffling: South Korea has the worst gender pay gap in the world – women earn 38% less than men, and 10% more women say they are thriving than men. Any theories?

Other fascinating findings from the Arab world: Across the Arab world, men’s support for women’s equal legal status and right to hold any job they are qualified for was positively linked to men’s life evaluations, employment, and other measures of economic and social development. Gallup also found that there is no link between men’s support for Sharia as the only source of legislation and antagonism toward equal rights for women.  If the economy continues to suffer, women’s rights may as well. This suggests that economic trouble may be a greater threat to women’s rights than public support for religious legislation.

Now the standard NGO response to reading something ‘counterintuitive’ – i.e. we would rather it wasn’t true – is to question the methodology. But unless you really are an ubergeek, I would strongly advise against taking Gallup on. Like I said, they are scary, as is their readiness to get down and dirty on methodology.

I recommend an idle wander through gallup.com – a real treasure trove. The Middle East leads the world in negative emotions – but how about Somaliland having the lowest level of negatives (maybe just not being Somalia gives you a boost?)

Finally, as they talked about measuring anger and rage across the world, I asked the obvious question – could you have predicted the Arab Spring? There answer was ‘not yet’ – ‘we know when something is ripe for chaos – you can see Spain and Greece are really brittle right now’. Their polling showed that despite high GDP growth, well-being was ‘plummeting’ in Egypt and Tunisia for some years before the uprising. Hope they don’t manage to crack the predictive thing, or I imagine some rather unsavoury customers will be lining up to buy their services.

Here’s some more links for potential browsers and data geeks, c/o Gallup’s Andy Rzepahappiness v researchers

Income, Health and Wellbeing across the World”, paper by Angus Deaton

Women and Men Worldwide Equally Likely to Be “Thriving”” Lymari Morales and Kyley McGeeney

Gallup WorldView, data visualisation portal

And a footnote from Oxfam wellbeing guru Katherine Trebeck. The Oxfam Humankind Index for Scotland will be broken down by gender next year so we’ll see how women and men compare according to the 18 priorities our consultation revealed (the Scottish Government have promised us access to unpublished data that allows us to do so).