Can states empower poor people? Your thoughts please

June 27, 2013

The Monty Python guide to aid and development. Part One – politics

June 27, 2013

What do Protests in Turkey, Brazil etc have in common? Six surprising facts

June 27, 2013
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Nice reflection from Moises Naim in El Pais. It was published in Spanish, so this is brought to you c/o Google Translate – took about 15 minutes to tidymoises naim up the rough edges. V impressed.

“First it was Tunisia, then Chile and Turkey. And now Brazil. What do the street protests in such different countries have in common? Several things … and all amazing.

One. Small incidents that become big. In all cases, the protests began with localized events that unexpectedly become a national movement. In Tunisia, it all started with a young fruit vendor who could no longer bear the abuse from authorities and set himself on fire. In Chile it was the costs of universities. In Turkey, a park and in Brazil, bus fare increases. To the surprise of the protesters themselves – and governments – those specific complaints awoke echoes in the cities and became widespread protests on issues such as corruption, inequality, the high cost of living or the arbitrariness of the authorities.

brazil_protests_62013_5Two. Governments react badly. None of the governments of the countries where these protests have erupted was able to anticipate them. At first they did not understood their nature and were not able to cope effectively. The common reaction has been to send riot police to break up demonstrations. Some governments go further and choose to send the army onto the streets. The excesses of the police or military further aggravate the situation.

Three. The protests do not have leaders or a chain of command. The demonstrations rarely have an organizational structure or clearly defined leaders. Eventually some of the protesters emerge as leaders, and are appointed by the others – or identified by journalists – as spokesmen. But these movements organize spontaneously through social networks and text messages, rather than have formal leaders or a traditional command hierarchy.

Four. There is no one to negotiate with or imprison. The informal nature, spontaneous and chaotic collective protests leave governments confused. Who to negotiate with? Who to make concessions to in order to appease the anger on the streets? How to know if those who appear as leaders really have the ability to represent and bind the rest?

Five. It is impossible to predict the consequences of the protests. No expert foresaw the Arab Spring. Until shortly before their sudden ousters, Ben Ali, Gaddafi or Mubarak were treated by analysts, intelligence and media as untouchable leaders whose hold on power was permanent. The next day, those same experts were all busily explaining why the fall of these dictators was inevitable. In the same way that it was not known why or when the protests started, we do not know how and when they will end, and what will be their effects. In some countries they have had major consequences, elsewhere they have resulted in only minor reforms. In others, the protests have toppled governments. The latter is not the case in Brazil, Chile and Turkey. But there is no doubt that the political climate in these countries is no longer the same.

Six. Prosperity does not buy stability. The main surprise is that these street protests occur in economically successful countries. Tunisia’s economy hasturkey-protests-3june2013 been the best of North Africa. Chile is an example to the world that development is possible. In recent years it has become commonplace to qualify Turkey as an “economic miracle”. And Brazil has not only lifted millions of people out of poverty, but has even achieved the feat of reducing inequality. They have now a larger middle class than ever. So why take to the streets to protest rather than celebrate? The answer is in a book that the American political scientist Samuel Huntington published in 1968: Political order in changing societies. His thesis is that in societies undergoing rapid change, the demand for public services grows faster than the ability of governments to meet it. This is the gap that takes people to the streets to protest against the government. Along with other well-justified protests: the prohibitive cost of higher education in Chile, the authoritarianism of Erdogan in Turkey and the impunity of corruption in Brazil. Surely, in these countries the protests will subside. But that does not mean that the causes will disappear. That is Huntington’s unbridgeable gap.

And that gap, which produces political turbulence can also be transformed into a positive force that drives progress.”

[h/t Ricardo Fuentes]

And here, in case you missed it, is the viral video ‘No, I’m not going to the World Cup’. 3 million hits and counting


  1. Great post! Lots to think about.

    Being spontaneous and non-hierarchical is great for building a powerful protest fast, but can make it easy for more organised groups to push the protestors aside later. That looks like the pattern from Egypt and Tunisia, and from the Russian and French revolutions – though Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell mostly found a different route.

  2. I wonder if there is not some more generic validity to some of this. Some of the same lessons arguably could be applied to successful development processes or projects.
    1. Small changes or processes or projects that become big i.e. Grameen, or the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) etc etc,
    2. Governments/Development agencies react badly, could not anticipate, or simply ignore them.
    3. The processes do not have log-frames, clear theories of change or links to organisational strategic objectives. These processes largely organize spontaneously and organically.
    4. They are in the first instance nonthreatening and their informal & spontaneous nature leaves agencies confused, or simply unaware.
    5. It is impossible to predict the consequences of the more transformational processes or projects.
    6. Large budgets do not buy success – necessity and political turbulence are usually the mother of invention.

  3. I’m reminded of the student protests in Quebec last year. Which would suggest it’s not just rapid change and the state’s failure to keep up. But also a mismatch between what the state thinks matters (low taxes and then fewer services, etc.) and what people – especially young people, but not only young people – want.

  4. Really like this post. Very thought provoking. A couple of thoughts it has provoked:
    1. Governments (and in fact many large institutions and businesses or NGOs too) seem to be very bad indeed at dealing with challenges that are complex, unpredictable, and non-linear; or to organisations that are spontaneous and non-hierarchical.
    2. We saw this also in the UK 2 years ago, where the authorities were for some reason surprised that their slow, centralised methods of response were routinely circumvented by young people operating in a highly networked, non-hierarchical and fluid way across social media.
    3. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Some of the biggest challenges of our time (e.g. climate change or financial instability) are characterised by complexity, unpredictability, interdependency, etc. Yet policy responses invariably and almost instinctively attempt to solve them by searching for simple, linear, isolated responses (e.g. Biofuels mandates are a very blunt instrument to address the complexity of the relationship between energy and agriculture; and changing capital requirements is a very blunt tool to address financial market risk).
    4. The wisdom of crowds may well help overcome some of this, but perhaps not in the way policy-makers assume – because that wisdom may be more about about the dynamics of such movements and groups (the way they embody as well as engage with complexity and uncertainty and change) than it is about a given solution or plan they produce on a given issue at a certain time.

  5. I am Argentine,and there is a protest every month.More than 1 million people are in the street claiming against the corruption. The problem is that all the tools: Media, justice, economy are managed by the state, and the justice respond only to the goverment and the people is isolated, they dont have the ways or the tools to make arise a leader. The people continue believing in a system that do not function, and they expect that could change. Ex. Egipt- they change the president but nothing change, because the sistem is corrupted- In Argentina also, even though there are enough evidence to judge the president,and some of the ministers, because enrichment, human rights, etc, but most important: because Laundry of money, the justice is not responding as the people expect. The justice does not do nothing. So how people can resolve the corruption in their countries? The corruption, is not a problem particular of the countries, is a global problem because has an economic global impact. We suppose, that Argentina is not the only country with frozen million of euros and dollars in a cave, i think there are more countries. How many countries are in the same situation? How many million of dollars and euro are vanished or frozen from the global sistem because the avarice of this sub-politics? And here I believe is the answer to the problem. The goverments (US and EU ) must print more paper, more devaluation,no investments and the crisis installs in the developed countries, meanwhile there are million of money, hidden and frozen, waiting to be laundry or not. The church, is making a change,I think they are responding to the new demand, to be close to the people, and I think that all the countries must do this change. The solution is not giving credits or donations to poor nations, I think is more simple, perhaps with new worldwide rules, beter control of the money, and over the international finance transactions and investments, and of course, among the central banks. If the money is not flowing, something is wrong. May be a new world wide rules, that could oblige to their politics, to respond in benefit of the citizens. Of course, the politicians will continue cheating, but perhaps less obscene. They should respond for what they do and how they used the money that they get. Perhaps if the rules of the world game change, impact in the improving of the life (for beter) of million of people all around the world more than the assistance or donations, obliging to the countries, to make more business among them

  6. Oxfam organisation is doing very good world wide and thats very good i give them abig hand all they doing .They Cordinate nicely while doing all they are doing .Plse continue like that .Oxfam make an extension to Budalangi in Busia where we same tough problems as in of Water flooding the lower Areas have alot fo problems .

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