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World Protests 2006-13: Where? How big? About what? Did they achieve anything?

February 24, 2014
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Following on from last week’s food riots post, some wider context. The news is full of protests (Kiev, Caracas, Cairo), but to what extent is it really ‘all kicking off everywhere’ as Paul Mason claims? Just come across a pretty crude, but thought-provoking paper that tries to find out. For World Protests 2006-13, Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada and Hernan Cortes scoured online media (international and national) to identify and analyse 843 protests over the period. Among their findings are:

Protests have steadily increased in number, particularly after 2010 (see graph). world protests 2006-13 fig 2

Protests were more prevalent in high income countries, but violent riots were mainly a low income country phenomenon (feel free to debate the arrow of causality on that one).

The main grievances and causes of outrage were:

Economic Justice and Anti-Austerity: 488 protests (public services, tax, austerity, jobs, wages, inequality, poverty, land reform, energy and food prices, pensions, housing)

Failure of Political Representation and Political Systems: 376 protests (democracy, corporate influence, deregulation, privatization, corruption, access to justice, accountability, surveillance, anti-war)

Global Justice: 311 protests (international institutions, environment, trade, G20)

Rights of People: 302 protests (ethnic/indigenous rights, right to land, culture; labour righrts; women’s rights; freedom of assembly/speech/press/worship; sexuality; immigrant rights)

Demonstrators mostly address their grievances to national governments (see table, below)- also a finding of the food riots research I reviewed last week.

Not only is the number of protests increasing, but also the number of protestors. Crowd estimates suggest that 37 events had one million or more protesters; some of those may well be the largest protests in history (eg. 100 million in India in 2013, 17 million in Egypt in 2013).

‘As of 2013, as many as 63% of the protests covered in the study achieved neither their intended demands nor their expressed grievances in the short-term’. Not sure what to make of this – is a 37% success rate good or bad compared to other forms of political engagement?

‘Repression is well documented in over half of the protest episodes analyzed in the study.’ Yeah, but that may be partly because nothing guarantees you news coverage better than repression.

Which points to some wider flaws with the study – although it does discuss numbers involved, it doesn’t weight the protests accordingly in its wider analysis, which means that media visibility trumps size. It’s reasonable to assume that a few hundred demonstrators outside an IMF meeting are going to register for this study, when a few hundred peasants in rural Malawi or China are not, so the findings are likely to be heavily skewed towards global, metropolitian protests.

Even so, an interesting exercise.

world protests 2006-13 table 8


  1. Yes, an interesting exercise, and study of ‘protests’ is important as they appear to become a more frequent expression of anything from dissatisfaction and frustration to outrage. I have two comments.

    (1) Longer term trend (from 70s to now) in the Netherlands (my country) appears to be a clear decline in mass participation in rallies. I am not sure of the number of protests but decline participation is in decline. Is dissatisfaction lower than it was before?, I would guess not. Is there lack of (belief in) a real alternative?, possibly yes.

    (2) More importantly: You say “the findings are likely to be heavily skewed towards global, metropolitian protests”. Yes this is clearly the case, only for China estimates were as high as 180.000 riots/ protests for 2010, These seem to be lumped in the study (with only a few taking as separate incidents). Inlcuding them (and many others outside world centres) would change the picture completely.

  2. Duncan, you call this ‘crude’, but it is far more careful and thoughtful than many political event catalogues. for one thing it takes seriously the content of people’s protests. For another it takes on the crucial Charles Tilly challenge of looking at responses what happens when people protest – not just correlating them with the price of bread or whatever as though people are hungry animals rather than political ones.

  3. Duncan, thanks for your post. Besides your comments I would add one more and a reflection. There is a tendency to what we labelled as “Global Justice”, meaning movements who identify the links between local and global levels (e.g. peasants against a food price increase and the implementation of a FTA, environmental protest against a mining project and the role of a TNC and global capital, etc.). In my opinion this is, maybe, a paradigmatically change in protests who will probably increase next years and a consequence of the lack of real political alternatives to the current system and how society has identified the role of global deregulated capital all over the world in many sectors. Related with that, a reflection/question: you mention “other forms of engagement”. What do you mean with that? Our study identifies as the main grievance “Economic Justice and Austerity”, however the main secondary grievance -the most common in all the protests analyzed- is “Real Democracy”. Many movements either in Kenya, Ukraine, Egypt, Spain, US or China are demanding more and better democracy, meaning that the current status-quo doesn’t work. Which could be then the other forms of engagement when -as Upton Sinclair said- “It is difficult to get a man/woman to understand something when his/her salary depends upon not to understand it”?

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