From protest to progress?

By Mario Pezzini, Director of the OECD Development Centre & Special Advisor to the OECD Secretary General on Development and Alexander Pick, Head of Unit, New Development Policies and Institutions, OECD Development Centre

The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for humanity to chart a new course and for societies to build forward better. The pandemic has shown that there is a need for change. However, as the new edition of Perspectives on Global Development warns, relying on the same voices, the same institutions and the same mind-sets that prevailed prior to this crisis to answer these questions is unlikely to produce an equitable, inclusive and sustainable recovery. A surge in discontent prior to the pandemic demonstrated that these approaches were failing billions of people around the world, as well as generations not yet born.

Our report, From Protest to Progress?, argues that a long-lasting recovery from COVID-19 cannot be achieved without addressing this discontent, which it defines as collective feelings of frustrated expectations, injustice, vulnerability and powerlessness. A sharp increase in protests during the period between the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and the COVID-19 pandemic shown in Figure 1 attests to a global rise in discontent. However, not all forms of discontent are so obvious: the report also finds evidence of growing discontent amid marked declines in voter turnout, trust in government and support for democracy. And if these variables seem biased towards democratic countries, it’s worth noting that protests rose in authoritarian states too. Taken together, we see that discontent was neither marginal nor fleeting; indeed, it is likely to worsen as countries emerge from the pandemic.

Number of protests by region, 1991-2019

Source: Clark, D. and P. Regan (2021), “Mass Mobilization Protest Data”, Harvard Dataverse (database).

Beneath these different forms of discontent, we detect unheard voices that are either resigned to exclusion or, in the case of protests, clamouring for change. The change they are demanding is systemic: it cannot be achieved without more inclusive societies, economies and political systems, as well as changes to environmental policy commensurate with the severity of the climate crisis. How this change might be achieved will depend very much on the country, as the experiences of Tunisia and more recently Chile have demonstrated. However, our report sets out a four-step process whereby protests can lead to progress by listening to, engaging and empowering the discontented and by creating spaces for change.

‘Listening’ means recognising and understanding the causes of discontent. Public opinion surveys show that a large proportion of the world’s population cannot make ends meet. On average, only 12% of Latin Americans considered the economic situation in their country to be “good” or “very good” in 2018. However, people also want better public services, better governance and greater security, as well as a voice in the way their country is run: support for democracy is relatively high across Africa, but only 42% of Africans feel that elections make a difference, according to Afrobarometer data.

At the same time, discontent emerges when these grievances interact with longer-term social and political fault lines. Some of these might be obvious – the gender-based discrimination that affects over half the world’s population, for example. Others exist beneath the surface in citizens’ day-to-day lives, apparent in a loss of trust in other people, frustrated expectations or lower civic engagement. The proportion of people who are stressed increased in all regions between 2006 and 2018, exceeding 40% in Africa, East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and the OECD. So-called culture wars point to divergences in values and outlooks within a population as well as battles for recognition. Political systems are becoming ever-more distant from daily life and ever-less effective in mediating between different groups. Digital technologies are often exacerbating these tendencies.

This approach to understanding discontent helps us to explain its complexities, such as why protests are particularly prevalent in middle-income countries and among the middle classes, as well as the channels through which inequality leads to discontent. It is because of these complexities that addressing discontent is not simply a matter of matching policy to grievance – indeed, it is because of these complexities that forging a broad consensus behind a reform programme is becoming increasingly difficult.

These political economy challenges underline the need for governments to enhance their engagement with citizens. Processes such as participatory budgeting, climate assemblies or place-based policies can help generate a consensus around key challenges and enhance both the effectiveness and legitimacy of public policy. The report also shows that by promoting and harnessing social capital – the trust, networks and knowledge that bind societies and states together – governments can address the fundamental development challenges of low productivity, weak institutions and social vulnerabilities while also strengthening social cohesion and reinforcing or re-writing the social contract. Strategies for national development or post-pandemic recovery that are inclusive in vision and formulation are needed to tie these approaches together and can help countries to realise the socioeconomic rights set out in their constitution.

These processes should be accompanied by an equitable transfer of power and resources across populations, including to groups that have hitherto been marginalised economically, socially and politically. Participatory processes are much more than communication or consultation: they need to be carefully designed so as to empower those most at risk of exclusion, not only to influence public policies but also to shape public institutions. This multi-dimensional empowerment is a prerequisite for change more broadly: decentralisation can foster experimental approaches to public policy that today’s context of uncertainty and systemic risks demands. Systems for monitoring the effectiveness of innovative approaches and diffusing this knowledge are essential for fulfilling the potential of this experimentalism. So too are communities of practice to discuss and interpret this information.

Change also needs to be fostered at an international level. In many ways, discontent is a global phenomenon, underlining the need for fairer, more inclusive and more effective systems of international co-operation. Multilateral institutions need to promote the same experimentalism mentioned above. They must empower a broader variety of actors, employ a broader set of modalities, and be guided by a wider range of voices, including those of the discontented themselves.

The final stage is creating spaces for change by reducing or removing the impediments that developing countries are likely to confront when contemplating the approaches outlined in the report. Fiscal space is an obvious example: developing countries generate low levels of fiscal revenues relative to advanced economies and most are faced with much higher debt levels as a result of the pandemic. At the same time, they also need policy space: for example, the report explains how governments in developing countries are often locked into economic models that narrow the space for initiatives in the social and environmental spheres.

Taken together, these approaches can ease discontent and form the basis of resilient and equitable recoveries, but it is worth remembering that nothing can be built while the storm continues to rage. As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens in many developing countries, the need for coordinated international support grows ever more acute, whether it be in terms of securing vital medical supplies such as vaccines and oxygen or in giving countries breathing space as they confront rising debt levels. The longer the pandemic lasts in developing countries, the longer will be the road back and the larger the gap that separates them from advanced economies will grow. If the world’s richest countries turn their back on developing countries at such a critical moment, discontent is sure to worsen the world over and the basis for the international co-operation on which humanity’s very survival depends could well disappear.