Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo struck a chord when he observed, “We do not seem to have any common values on which we can all agree, nor common goals to which we all aspire” during his address to the United Nations General Assembly. In a time marked by interconnected crises, a fragmented international order, and uncertainty surrounding the role of the UN, where can we find the driving force and direction needed to revive multilateralism?
Answering this question necessitates a profound understanding of the attitudes, concerns, and aspirations of people worldwide. To this end, Open Society Foundations, the philanthropic organization I oversee, recently conducted one of the largest studies of global public opinion. Our Open Society Barometer surveyed over 36,000 individuals from a diverse range of 30 countries, representing approximately two-thirds of the world’s population.
The responses shed light on the common values and goals conspicuously missing from today’s global governance system. They reveal that people worldwide still hold faith in democracy, but in an era marked by crises and inequality, they expect tangible improvements in their lives from it.
Africa’s figures were particularly noteworthy. Eight of the 30 countries in our survey—Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia—are located on the continent. While responses varied significantly on some questions due to different historical and political contexts, a recurring theme emerged. For instance, 63 percent of Egyptians believe that military rule is a viable way to govern a country, compared to 40 percent of Ethiopians and only 20 percent of Senegalese. Nevertheless, an even larger proportion of Egyptians yearn for democracy, indicating uncertainty about the success of their previous experiments with it.
Significantly, while feelings of insecurity and inequity were widespread among respondents across the 30 countries, these sentiments were most pronounced in Africa. Respondents from the continent also expressed heightened concerns about the adverse effects of climate change on their lives and livelihoods. For example, in Kenya and Ethiopia, 83 percent of respondents voiced such worries.
Of the five countries where our polling detected the greatest fear that political unrest would lead to violence within the next year, four were in Africa: Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and Senegal. African respondents were also more likely to assert that inequality between countries is a bigger challenge now than it was in 2022. This perception was most pronounced in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal, but all eight African countries ranked in the top half of this category.
Moreover, while a majority of respondents in most countries shared certain views on the necessity of global changes, those majorities were typically the largest in Africa. For instance, African respondents, led by those in Nigeria and Kenya, were the most inclined to affirm that “human rights reflect values I believe in” and were among the most likely to agree that “tools such as travel bans and freezing bank accounts are useful ways to bring human rights violators to justice”.
Africans, more so than respondents from other continents, supported the idea of countries opening more safe and legal routes for refugees. They also strongly advocated for rebalancing international institutions, with many calling for lower-income countries to have a greater say in global decision-making. Seven of the top ten national groups most supportive of the statement “high-income countries should give more money to the World Bank” hailed from Africa.
In sum, these results suggest that Africa reflects global sentiments but experiences the pressures of the “polycrisis” more acutely. Yet, Africans are also more inclined to embrace necessary solutions, including reforming global governance structures and the international financial system, stabilizing today’s chaotic interdependence, and making substantial investments in sustainable development.
At a global level, the poll indicates that people have higher expectations of multilateralism than their political leaders. They seek effective international solutions to pressing problems in their lives, with Africa at the forefront of this desire.
For those of us searching for future champions and ideas for multilateral reform, it’s evident that we must look beyond the usual players—Western governments safeguarding their power and privilege—and instead tap into the wellspring of the Global South. That’s where the future of multilateralism lies.