What people really think of the SDGs

By Anna Patricia Valerio 25 September 2015

Participants at the Youth Summit hold up cards showing each of the sustainable development goals. What does the public actually think of the SDGs and how to achieve them? Photo by: Jessica Lea / DfID / CC BY

In 2013, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed high hopes for the post-2015 development agenda: “I want this to be the most inclusive global development process the world has ever known.”

And it looks like he got what he wanted. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which were decided behind closed doors among a relatively small number of architects, the global goals set to be adopted this weekend at the U.N Sustainable Development Summit in New York City were a result of a participatory process that involved, among others, gathering the input of people from more than 190 countries, whether through face-to-face consultations or votes on global surveys like the U.N.’s own MyWorld.

It’s been a refreshing approach, but one that has also attracted criticism. For some observers, the fact that the 17 SDGs and their underlying 169 targets encompass views from all over the world reflects the sheer scale of setting global goals in the first place.

So what does the general public actually think of these goals?

Ipsos, a global market research firm, conducted a survey among people aged 16-64 from 17 countries to find out. Responses about their perceptions of foreign aid, the importance they assign to different development issues and their views on who should be responsible for paying for programs and policies to achieve the SDGs were collected from 12,906 nationals of Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Ipsos’s sample consisted of 12,906 nationals from 17 countries.

Respondents from UAE made up just 2 percent of the sample, while respondents from China were only asked about their thoughts on development issues included in the yet-to-be-adopted SDGs. To balance the demographics and ensure that the sample’s composition represented the adult population from each of the 17 countries, Ipsos weighted the survey results.

Devex dug into the data and found that respondents from a number of established donor countries — Japan and the United States, for example — are more likely to place the least importance on the SDGs. Whether this is a reflection of donor fatigue or an uncertain economic outlook — or perhaps both — isn’t covered by the survey, but it’s nevertheless an eye-opening finding.

UAE, meanwhile, has mostly favorable views both on the role of foreign aid and the SDGs. China arguably attracts far more attention, but the results show that its position on various development issues generally aligns with that of emerging donors as a whole.

Below, we detail some of the findings that may prove useful for those who are planning policies and advocacy campaigns in the countries included in the survey.

Since foreign aid will continue to have an important, but perhaps less immediate, role in financing the SDGs, we first take a closer look at what respondents from established and emerging donors think of aid spending and the purpose of aid. Established donor countries include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. Emerging donors, on the other hand, include Brazil, Hungary, India, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and UAE.

We also look into respondents’ views on who should be responsible for paying for programs to achieve the SDGs. Perhaps it’s a hallmark of the inclusive post-2015 process that respondents from both groups think that the SDGs are the responsibility of governments in developed and developing countries alike.

Perceptions of aid spending don’t match desired levels

Most of the countries studied actually spend less than 1 percent of their budgets on foreign aid. Only UAE, which in recent years has been the largest development and humanitarian donor, spends more than 3 percent.

But in general, people think their governments devote a far larger share of the budget to aid than they actually do. Most respondents from established donor countries think their governments spend 3-5 percent on aid to other countries, while emerging donor country respondents think their governments spend 3-10 percent.

By group: What percentage of your country’s national budget do you think is spent on foreign aid?

Both groups, however, believe that they should spend less than what they think they’re currently spending. Established donors think they should spend 1-2 percent, while emerging donors think they should spend 1-5 percent.

By group: What percentage of your country’s national budget do you think should be spent on foreign aid?

Among individual countries, perceptions of foreign aid spending vary considerably.

For example, 40 percent of respondents from the UAE, 22 percent from the U.S., and 21 percent from Brazil think their governments spend more than 30 percent on foreign aid. For the UAE and Brazil, this was the dominant view among respondents. But for the U.S., a slightly higher percentage — 23 percent — believe that their government spends slightly less (10-20 percent) on aid.

On the other hand, many respondents in Japan (25 percent) and South Korea (18 percent) think their governments don’t spend on aid at all.

By country: What percentage of your country’s national budget do you think is spent on foreign aid?

Some respondents’ impressions of their governments’ aid spending match the spending levels that they deem appropriate for foreign assistance.

For example, respondents from Australia, France and Germany generally think that they’re spending 3-5 percent on aid — and that they should continue to spend at this level. In Hungary and Sweden, most respondents also believe that their perceived aid spending — 1-2 percent — should stay at that level. A large portion of respondents from India and the UAE, meanwhile, think their estimated share of aid spending — 6-10 percent and more than 30 percent, respectively — should be maintained.

Respondents in Japan, however, see room for greater aid spending. Twenty-five percent of respondents think that their country should be spending significantly more, or 3-5 percent, of the government budget on foreign aid — perhaps not a surprise when the same proportion of respondents think that Japan isn’t spending on aid at all.

But this isn’t straightforward, either, with 20 percent of respondents from Japan thinking that their country shouldn’t spend on aid at all. In South Korea and Hungary, the proportions of those who have the same view are even higher — 22 and 23 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, a considerable percentage of respondents from the UAE and Brazil — 52 and 22 percent, respectively — support channeling over 20 percent of their government budgets to aid. Still, in Brazil, there’s a substantial difference between respondents’ perceived aid spending and their approved level of spending. While respondents think that more than 30 percent of the government budget goes to aid, they also think that this spending should be within 6-10 percent of the budget.

Other countries where most respondents think aid spending should be lower are Canada, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, U.K. and U.S.

By country: What percentage of your country’s national budget do you think should be spent on foreign aid?

Different — even contrasting — views on aid within and among groups

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the majority of respondents from both established and emerging donor countries agree it’s important to preserve the planet for future generations.

While respondents from emerging donor countries are generally more positive toward foreign aid than those from established donor countries, they also agree with what may seem to be conflicting statements. Compared with respondents from established donor countries, fewer respondents from emerging donor countries believe that too much foreign aid fills the pockets of corrupt government officials in other countries. More respondents from emerging donor countries also think that global equality is an important value, foreign aid benefits both the global and domestic economy, aid prevents international conflict, and spending on aid raises a country’s influence in the international community.

But more respondents from emerging donor countries also agree that money is better spent on domestic programs and that they have no moral obligation to help those who are less well-off.

By group: To what extent, if at all, do you agree with the following statements?

On the use of foreign aid in boosting the global and domestic economy, preventing international conflict and increasing influence, the UAE and the U.K. have rather opposing views. Respondents from the UAE tend to be more optimistic about the role of aid, while respondents from the U.K. tend to be more pessimistic.

While there’s almost universal agreement on the idea that it’s important to preserve the planet for future generations, only 84 percent of respondents from Japan agree with the statement. France, meanwhile, has the highest percentage of respondents who believe that too much aid ends up in corrupt governments. And it seems that the U.S., which has the lowest percentage of respondents who think that global equality is an important value, considers the statement unrealistic, if not utopian.

Russia has the largest proportion of respondents who agree that money is better spent on domestic programs — a view that seems consistent with its increasingly inward-looking aid program. Indians, meanwhile, are among the highest percentage of respondents who think that helping those who are less well-off isn’t a moral obligation. Swedes disagree with this sentiment the most.

By country: To what extent, if at all, do you agree with the following statements?

UAE and Japan on the opposite sides of the SDG spectrum

Respondents from emerging donor countries tend to place a higher importance on the SDGs than those from established donor countries. This is true even when China is included in the group of emerging donors. China, however, has a slightly lower percentage of respondents who think that ending all forms of poverty, promoting sustainable industrialization and reducing inequality within and among countries are very or at least somewhat important than that of emerging donors as a whole.

By group: How important, if at all, do you think each of the following goals is?

A more detailed look at the responses of individual countries shows that, again, the UAE is an outlier. It has the highest percentage of respondents agreeing that 16 out of 17 SDGs are very or somewhat important. On the need to take urgent action to combat climate change, Germany has a slightly higher percentage of respondents who agree (95 percent), but the UAE isn’t far behind (94 percent).

Among the 17 countries, Japan assigns the least importance to the SDGs. It has the lowest proportion of respondents who consider 14 SDGs very or at least somewhat important. For example, together with South Korea, Japan has the least proportion of respondents agreeing that affordable and clean energy are very or somewhat important goals.

Meanwhile, Germany has the lowest percentage of respondents who think that reducing inequality and ensuring sustainable consumption and production are very or somewhat important. Lastly, the U.S. has the least proportion of respondents who deem climate action a pressing priority.

By country: How important, if at all, do you think each of the following goals is?

The SDGs are a global responsibility

Respondents from established and emerging donor countries alike think that paying for programs and policies to achieve the SDGs is the responsibility of governments of all countries. The private sector, however, doesn’t figure prominently among these groups.

By group: Who should be responsible for paying for programs and policies that work toward the SDGs?

Among countries, there’s a wide disparity of views about who should be responsible for the steep price tag attached to these global goals. Japan, for example, has the highest percentage of respondents who believe that the responsibility falls on transnational organizations like the World Bank and the European Union institutions.

UAE, which has the lowest proportion of respondents who think that multilateral organizations have to pay for programs to support the SDGs, stands in contrast with this view: Most respondents think that the SDGs are everyone’s responsibility. Even a higher percentage of respondents from South Korea — 50 percent, the highest among countries — agree.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has the largest proportion of respondents who think that the SDGs are the burden of developing countries themselves. Respondents from France and the UAE, however, seem to disagree with this. In both countries, only 4 percent of respondents believe that developing countries should foot most of the SDGs bill.  

While the private sector isn’t seen to have a major role in paying for the programs to meet the SDG targets, three countries — Australia, Brazil and Germany — have at least 7 percent of respondents, the highest among countries, who think it has the largest role to play in financing the global goals.

By country: Who should be responsible for paying for programs and policies that work toward the SDGs?

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About the author

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Anna Patricia Valerio

Anna Patricia Valerio is a Manila-based development analyst focusing on writing innovative, in-the-know content for senior executives in the international development community. Before joining Devex, Patricia wrote and edited business, technology and health stories for BusinessWorld, a Manila-based business newspaper.


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