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MY World: listening to 1 million voices

Written by Claire Melamed

MY World is a global survey about people’s priorities. Less than a year ago, ODI became one of the founding partners, after it was devised by me and Paul Ladd of UNDP. Out of a list of 16 options, people are asked to choose the six that are most important for themselves and their families. There’s also space for people to add a 17th option, if there’s something important that they think isn’t captured by the existing options. Working with our partners – the UNDP, UN Millennium Campaign, World Wide Web Foundation, Ipsos MORI, and over 700 implementing organisations – the survey has taken off worldwide since its launch in January.

This week saw the millionth vote uploaded. MY World is one of the largest global surveys ever carried out, and one of the most comprehensive – those million votes come from 194 countries. The majority (around 80%) come from low- or lower-middle-income countries, and about a third from people with little or no education, which is the proxy we use for low incomes in the survey methodology. Just under half of the votes come from people doing the survey with pen and paper in the traditional way, though we are also experimenting with different ways of collecting information by mobile phone, and people can vote on the website.

The survey is making a great impact here at the UN General Assembly, and in the debate on the post-2015 development goals. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard it mentioned on panels – including by the UN Secretary General, Helen Clark, the Administrator of UNDP, and Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever. And we got a little dose of glamour yesterday when Queen Rania of Jordan, accompanied by Gordon Brown in his capacity as UN envoy on education, came to visit the MY World exhibition that’s been put together for UNGA week.

What can MY World tell us?

With such a huge amount of information, there are a thousand stories out there that MY World is telling. You can download the data yourself and see what’s there – or read a summary of the current state of the votes. A few things are standing out for me.

First, the remarkable consistency and uniformity of the votes. Education and health have been ranked at first and second almost since the first day of the survey. Of the 1.1 million people that have voted, over 800,000 have chosen education as one of their six priorities, making it number one for almost every country and group. Health, jobs and ‘an honest and responsive government’ follow, and issues like food and water are also priorities for large numbers of people. The priorities don’t change much if you compare men and women, the richest and poorest people, or votes from different regions. It’s a picture of a quite stable global consensus on what’s important.

But there are some differences and these are just as interesting as the similarities. Issues like jobs and access to transport tend to be higher priorities in poorer countries, particularly in Africa, while options like climate change fare better among richer countries. You can see a global ‘heat map’ of the priorities here. 

The survey also shows the difference that policy can make. Priorities aren’t fixed. The priority attached to ‘better healthcare’, for example, is lower in countries where spending on healthcare is higher, implying that as people get better healthcare their priorities shift to other things. And it shows that systems matter. Among the over sixties, for example, ‘better job opportunities’ are a high priority (in 4th place) for people in low-Human Development Index (HDI)-ranked countries (where pension provision is weak or non-existent), but it drops to 13th among the same age group in very high-HDI-ranked countries, where pension provision means that older people have less need to work.

The first million people are just the start. The survey will run until 2015, providing a unique picture of what people in different countries think are the really important things for governments to take action on. We’re providing regular updates on the patterns we’re seeing in the data, and we’re hoping that others will use it themselves to answer their own questions about what people want and what governments can do to provide it.