Voices Raised: Lessons from protests around the world, by Nikkon Balial

26 Nov

Editor’s Note:  Nikkon came to us via Central European University and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program.  An Indian citizen, Nikkon has been working as an intern (for Foreign Policy Interrupted) highlighting the work of extraordinary but under-the-radar women writers in peace and security. During her limited time with us, Nikkon has thrown herself into a wide range of UN issues while keeping her eye on global trends beyond this building.  The following post is the fruit of her attentions. 

Almost half the world is seemingly out on the streets protesting their leaders, flawed systems and the failed promises. These protests may not be having the exact same demands, but they have more things in common than meets the naked eye. These protests expose the ever-increasing rich and the poor divide along with the growing gap in demands between the economically developed and under-developed countries. These protests across the world teach us lessons about the overwhelming youth involvement, changing definitions of power and contrasting demands. They prove that the lens which we have been using to analyze global dynamics must be thoroughly re-evaluated. The changing global dynamics are trying to tell us something and if we are not realizing that already, then, what are we paying attention to? The protests demonstrate the gaps and we must detect them first to begin finding solutions thereafter.

The notion of peace journalism developed by Lynch and Galtung concentrates on how the consequences of war are more important than understanding how war is actually fought. What happens after the war is over is often where coverage is most required. But what happens when civilians revolt against the state leaders? Is covering the war within the state more important or is it the consequences of the protest and the conflict, which is paramount? In most cases, they are not independent of each other. They happen together, sometimes with increased momentum and at other times leaders get lucky and the unanimity frizzles out! The world has been torn into protests recently, From Hong Kong to Chile, Guinea to Lebanon, from Bolivia to Georgia and Iraq to Ecuador. People have all united against a range of issues comprising of rising corruption, economic inequalities, democratic rights and popular resentment against leaders. The protesters have mobilized seemingly without strong leaders dictating to them. They have gathered and protested for rights they believe they deserved.

Closer to my home, what led to the protests at the Indian academic institution Jawaharlal Nehru University? The students of the institution gathered on the streets to protest the price hike at the University and demanded education to remain a public good, accessible to all. The youth leading these large protests has become a striking phenomenon across the world. Recently, in Czech Republic, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution became an occasion to ask their Prime Minister to separate trade from politics. The protesters who were mostly students and young people, saw their populist Prime Minister as a threat to democracy and wanted him to step down. Hong Kong, even more so, demonstrates the truest spirit of the young. The youth have proven their perseverance by carrying forward the symbol of anger against Chinese control, steadily over months. These examples clearly demonstrate the perseverance of young people to want change and act towards the change. The young are flooding the streets massively, reinstating student involvement in mass demonstrations. They are relentless, committed and ready to question authorities who they believe have been unfair, across cultures and countries. The youth have remained engaged despite authority’s backlash. It is not a choice that can be exercised by the leaders in accordance with their whim and fancies.

Protests have erupted in every continent of the world. They have started with one issue and soon has used that to express their overwhelming discontent with the entire system. Some have achieved the resignation of leaders, while others have earned promise of change and reforms. But, an important lesson that came out of them is that democracy is a primary need for the privileged while social safety net policies are what people in the under-developed countries require. The difference between rich and the poor is not the only gap widening, there is also a clear demarcation emerging between economically developed and under-developed countries. The protests in the developed regions are raising their heads for democracy and the loosening of state control. In Czech Republic, people want their Prime Minister to maintain the true values of democracy. In Georgia too, the people gathered in front of the parliament to protest the parliamentarians who could not pass an electoral reform bill. Hong Kong students have demanded democratic rights, lesser control by China and their freedom of speech and expression, while the economically weak are flaring up to demand for subsidies and lower prices. They are roaring in the streets, calling out for basic resources to survive. These examples clearly show how the developed countries and economically advanced countries have people demanding for democracy, their right to assemble and their right to uphold democratic principles through governance. This is almost in contrast to the demands being made by Latin American, African and Middle Eastern countries. The protesters in Iran have risen against the price hike in petrol while Chileans have gathered to protest the hike in public transport prices, poor medical facilities and low pension rates. Much like Chile, the Lebanese people also started gathering on the streets after the introduction of new taxes by the government. Soon, the price hikes, electricity shortages and economic crisis became an overwhelming part of the protests. Inequality, inflation and the inability to afford the basic standards of living is more concerning to the people of under-developed and developing countries. Their demand for low prices, safety net systems, and subsidies are evidently visible.

Another takeaway from the new wave of protests is the contrasting use of technology. Digitalization and social media play a very significant role in the protests of today. The same technology is used in contrasting ways by leaders and the working lower middle-class masses who are protesting in these countries. Where, the leaders have curtailed civil liberties and formed narratives as per their convenience for the people to believe, the people have risen against their leaders together to protest, using the same social media platforms. Protests in Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong have spread using social media and digital platforms. The rage has accumulated on the screens and brought the people to the streets. This impact of digitalization is bringing people of underprivileged classes in developing and post-colonial countries closer, making them stand up for their own rights.

These protests also bring to light the need to re-evaluated definitions and systems of power. The power holders in countries have remained unaccountable and pursued policies without really addressing the needs of the people. This is part of the problem of being blindly influenced by western systems and narratives. Countries like Chile, Lebanon, Ecuador have suffered for decades. Power is not static and leaders across the world cannot expect to maintain power the same way they did for decades, by following a single model and a single model of understanding policy benefits and needs. It is time for the priorities of leaders to change and change in accordance to the needs of particular countries. It is also time that they start viewing their people’s needs not with the same lens as developed countries do. Policies need to address specific concerns of local populations and not follow the principle of ‘one size fits all.’

Lastly, the protests prove that wealth and economic reforms do not have much to do with addressing inequality in post-colonial developing countries. Ecuador, Lebanon, Chile, Iraq and Guinea need policies not based on models of developed western economies but policies with safety nets and supporting benefits. Despite funds from IMF and World Bank making the economic development index of a countries rise, it is in turn doing nothing to address the problem of rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. A conflict demanding the end to class differentiation has arisen and the real vote bank, the masses, the working population, is raising their voices louder than ever before. The demand from the working class and lower middle class might not exactly be the way Marx envisioned it, but identities are being manifested on the streets to protest policies that have stripped people of their capacity to meet basic needs. Better economic models based on positive differentiation and country history need to be considered. The notion of ‘one size fits all’ has served the world no good.

In this era of right-wing leaders, autocracy and compromised human rights, it is no longer a one-sided game. Leaders may have gotten more powerful but the people in the streets are not far behind. Post-colonial structures demand a re-calibrated system with a priority on safety nets beyond the focus on rights and liberty. It is time to detect the change that the world is currently undergoing, and it will be too late for all of us unless we address these changes with greater scrutiny.

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