Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Public perceptions of global interdependencies… threat or opportunity?

By Spencer Henson

There is much discussion amongst academics and policymakers about the consequences of globalisation for both industrialised countries and the developing world.  But do members of the general public appreciate the extent to which their lives are increasingly intertwined with those of others across the globe?  And, why does this matter?
My research with Joanna Lindstrom suggests that the public are more likely to support aid to developing countries if they see benefits ultimately flowing back to themselves and/or their country.  While there is concern about aid policies being driven by such self-interest concerns, they do appear to influence whether the public supports government spending on aid.  In turn, the degree to which such benefits are seen as mutually beneficial, whether in terms of trade, international influence, migration flows or security, reflect perceptions of global interdependence.

Survey research using the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UKPOM) based at IDS suggests that the general public are well aware that their economic and social wellbeing is increasingly linked to what goes on in the rest of the world.  Over 71 per cent of respondents in a 2010 survey considered the life of people in the UK to be dependent on what happens in other parts of the world. 

The greatest areas of perceived interdependency were the state of the economy and the level of terrorist threat.  Such perceptions exist in the wake of the global financial crisis and of concerted efforts by the UK and other governments to sell the ‘war on terror’.  Weak factual knowledge and strong political messages also often result in misplaced views about many less developed parts of the world.  Such misperceptions underpin common notions of aid ineffectiveness in the wake of corruption and wastage.

However, the fact that people recognise the existence of interdependencies and that global issues are relevant to their lives could be seen as an opportunity to engage on global issues.   It opens up the doorway for communication and education on global issues such as trade, immigration, security or global poverty. 

Whilst the moral arguments for supporting processes of development in poor countries remain central, many argue that a good dose of ‘self-interest’ is also required to push development up the political agenda.  If so, engagement on global issues, building on an appreciation of interdependencies but also correcting common myths, will be critical.  Maybe the door is now more open for this?

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