The GRR uses a survey of top-down expert opinion (where the experts are from academia, civil society and business leaders) from 1,200 people in the WEF network. This panel are asked about risks that affect the global economy or population at a macro-level, in a similar manner to a number of other expert panel-based global risk assessments such as the AXA Future Risks Report. The insight garnered through this process is valued as an input to strategic planning by organisations across the world.
What the World Risk Poll offers, in comparison, is bottom-up granularity, giving governments, policymakers and businesses insight into the perceptions of people on the ground who are acutely affected by those risks day-to-day. A unique global study powered by the global polling experts, Gallup, the World Risk Poll surveys at least 1,000 people in each of 120-145 countries across the world. Respondents are chosen randomly, and the large sample size gives us the ability to extrapolate the results within different populations.
World Risk Poll questions delve into people’s perceptions and experiences of a number of everyday risks, as well as their greatest perceived risk and how safe they feel, before focusing in with multiple questions on specific risk areas of interest. The Poll also collects granular demographic information including sex, income and education level. It is very much a ‘bottom up’ barometer of perceptions and experiences of risk of everyday people around the world.
The most salient risks can look different from that perspective, and it’s vital to understand them from that angle to tactically target interventions and to identify and support minority groups who may be experiencing risks in ways that can get lost or overlooked from a macro perspective.
Another point of difference between the GRR and World Risk Poll is that the Poll generates data on both perception and experience of risk, and the difference between the two. The GRR focuses solely on perception – expert, informed perception, but perception nonetheless.
A forecast, and a snapshot in time
The WEF GRR is forward-looking, and identifies the most severe perceived risks to economies and societies over the next two years. The 2023 report concludes that in the short term, the world’s collective focus is being channelled into the “survival” of today’s concurrent crises: cost of living, social and political polarisation, food and energy supply, tepid growth, and geopolitical confrontation, among others.
The majority of World Risk Poll questions ask respondents about their recent experience of risk, or their current perception of a safety issue. The Poll therefore generates a snapshot in time of perceived and experienced risk. The Poll was conducted in 2019 and 2021, and we’re in the field again this year – so our data paints a contemporary ground-level picture of the crises presented in the 2023 GRR (for which the WEF survey was undertaken in 2022).
That’s not to say we’re not interested in future risks in the World Risk Poll – and as we plan our questions for future polls, we take into account emerging risks. For example, we’ve been taking the pulse on global perceptions of harm from artificial intelligence, and we also ask about the perceived future threat from climate change.
The World Risk Poll also asks respondents about how safe they feel now compared with five years ago – and we can use this question to trend feelings of safety in demographic groups, countries and regions around the world. We saw a small but significant increase in people feeling less safe between 2019 and 2021. The GRR asks a complementary question about anticipated volatility, or optimism, in the near and longer term, producing a forecast of short-term volatility which then settles into a picture of extremes in the longer term – with some stability and resilience, but also an increase in catastrophic outcomes.
In spite of the different perspectives taken on risk, there are striking similarities in the findings of both surveys when you start to dig into the detail. Many of the trends reported in the GRR are reflected in responses to the World Risk Poll.
For example, the GRR highlights that health and economic after-effects of the pandemic have quickly spiralled into compounding crises. Meanwhile, World Risk Poll respondents ranked health concerns as their third greatest source of risk after road traffic and crime and violence, and over a third of respondents reported that they could only cover basic needs for less than a month if they lost their income. That was back in 2021 – and we anticipate that our 2023 results will show that this picture has worsened further.
The cost of living crisis, linked to the end of cheap debt, is also associated in the GRR with social unrest, and again the World Risk Poll sees these findings echoed by the voice of people around the world. Almost two in five people globally (37%) told us that their government doesn’t care about their wellbeing – a startling figure.
One risk that the World Risk Poll measures at a granular level, and which is reported in the ‘social risk’ section of the GRR, is harm to mental health. Our 2021 Poll saw a 5 percentage point increase globally in people’s experiences of mental health harm since 2019. The impact of Covid-19, and associated social restrictions, on mental health is much discussed, but must also be analysed in the context of compounding stressors such as violence, poverty and social isolation. It will be interesting to see whether worsening mental health is a continuing trend in our 2023 Poll.
The GRR also looks at the climate crisis, noting that carbon emissions have climbed as a result of our failure to mitigate climate change, and that the world is at greater risk of extreme weather events. Comparisons between the 2019 and 2021 World Risk Polls provide on the ground evidence of this, recording a 5 percentage point increase in experience of harm from severe weather globally.
In the face of these increased experiences of harm, it is worrying that the GRR predicts that economies and societies will not easily rebound from continued shocks. The World Risk Poll Resilience Index, constructed from data from the 2021 Poll, enables us to identify the most vulnerable communities, giving granular detail on where regions, countries and communities struggle at an individual, household, community or societal level. This insight will enable us to pinpoint where resilience lies and can be built on, strengthened, and replicated.
The GRR concludes that risks are interconnected, and warns of potential ‘polycrisis’ due to shortages in natural resources – food, water, metals, minerals – and their socioeconomic and environmental fallout. The World Risk Poll results also shows how risks are interconnected and compounding. Experience with serious harm from several risk sources (for example harm at work) was most common among those in their country’s lowest income groups, highlighting equity challenges in public services and infrastructure used to mitigate such risks.
The granular resilience data from the Poll enables identification of groups that are at particular risk. Women on low incomes in Afghanistan, for instance, and women on low incomes in rural central and western Africa, report particularly low levels of resilience. Key areas of variation lie in levels of community support, internet access and financial security – and where these are all absent, communities and individuals are particularly vulnerable. Such knowledge can help to anticipate points of vulnerability and head off crises before they arise. The lesson here is that strategies for addressing risk need to account for these connections and dependencies, whether at the macro or micro level.
A unique perspective
One of the most ambitious questions included in the World Risk Poll asks respondents about the biggest perceived source of risk to their safety in their daily lives. Notably, the biggest top-of-mind risks reported in the 2021 Poll – road crashes and crime and violence – are not things that really figure in the GRR.
Because we asked some of the same questions in the 2019 and 2021 Polls, we are also able to see changes over time in people’s risk perceptions. The Covid-19 pandemic was a huge global shock that happened after the first Poll was complete, and the Delta variant was still surging and receding while our 2021 Poll was in the field. Despite this, in 2021 Covid only made it to number four in the list of top-of-mind risks.
This data is telling us something fundamentally important – that it’s hard to make effective policy to address macro risks like Covid-19 and climate change unless you also see and understand the other more mundane risks that are influencing people’s behaviour day-to-day.
Effective policymaking also requires an understanding of how risk perceptions differ between demographics. For example, while the GRR recognises the threat from climate change, the World Risk Poll data enables us to understand how perceptions differ between men and women. While there is little difference at the global level, in high income countries women are more likely than men to say climate change is a serious threat to people in their country. Meanwhile, in low income countries the trend is reversed, with men more likely than women to recognise this threat.
These are things that have real consequences for efforts to tackle the issue, but which can only be fully seen and understood with the aid of the ground-level perspective of the World Risk Poll, rather than the helicopter-view of macro-level assessments such as the GRR alone. That’s not to say one perspective is better than the other. The important point is that they are different, and can therefore be used as complementary sources of information on risk. Policymakers and businesses alike would be well served to take into account both perspectives when making decisions.