We live in an age of economic exclusion, that is, where the economic system is complicit in the systematic denial of rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to billions of people. Oxfam’s research shows that just 62 people own as much wealth as half of humanity while 700 million people or roughly 10 per cent of the world’s population are living in extreme poverty, on less than 1.90 dollars a day (according to the World Bank’s conservative estimates). CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report, which provides an overview of the health and conditions for civil society, this year focuses on the special theme of “exclusion and civil society.” Protest as a means of challenging exclusion, including of the economic type, is a significant strand in the report.
Notably, the need to address economic exclusion has gained renewed emphasis through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) last year. The SDG framework promises to change the present reality of income inequality by 2030 and “leave no one behind.” Despite the high rhetoric, our economic systems remain rigged by corruption in high places and the relentless push towards privatisation of public services as political and economic elites collude to hand over ever increasing slices of state resources – and responsibilities – to private interests.
But citizens are fighting back. The State of Civil Society Report points out that over the course of the past year, people repeatedly took to the streets to seek change in diverse locations all over the world. There is a growing demand to address the failure of governments to put citizens’ interests at the heart of their actions. Some common issues can be identified across the different protests: people are seeing their material conditions worsening; public services and employment rights are being slashed while the cost of essential goods is rising. As elites grow wealthier many are seeing their state structures as being unresponsive, or even complicit in the worsening of their economic conditions.
The exposure of major corruption scandals involving politicians triggered mass protests over the past year in Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Iceland, Macedonia, Moldova and Romania, while other recent protests, such as those in Armenia, Bolivia, Ethiopia and South Africa, have their origins in anger at economic exclusion, poverty and inequality. Others still, including in France and South Korea, have been sparked by the proposed weakening of employment laws.
Following sustained protests, the president of Guatemala stood down and faced prosecution, the governments of Macedonia and Romania quit, and the prime ministers of Iceland and Moldova lost their jobs. Armenian demonstrations saw electricity price rises cancelled, a key demand, and protests by South African students led to tuition fees in public universities being frozen, rather than increased as planned. Elsewhere in Bolivia, Honduras and South Korea, mass protests have come up against governments that have conceded little, but this does not necessarily mean that protests have failed. Governments that play to elite interests also have to go through electoral cycles and can be voted out of power as it happened in Canada last year.
It is thus significant that in many cases, protests have continued even after initial victories, suggesting a sustained demand for total transformation of politics and economics. Our research suggests that protests can act as schools of participation in which people develop confidence and networks, making them likely to take citizen action again, especially when the underlying issues remain unaddressed. Young people in particular are using participation in mass movements to forge new forms of politics and economics while rejecting the conventional systems on offer. Market fundamentalism of the type that breeds exclusion may indeed be facing serious challenges.
Mandeep Tiwana is the Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. Click here to download full copy of the 2016 State of Civil Society Report.