Governments can do better

Dr Moisés Naím, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global international relations think tank, was trade and industry minister of Venezuela in the early 1990s and then editor-in-chief of the acclaimed Foreign Policy journal for 14 years. His is a highly respected voice on international politics and economics and, in an article on June 23, in the Spanish daily, El País, for whom he is chief international columnist, he puts forward some interesting observations on the recent street protests in Turkey and Brazil, as well as the precursor movements in Tunisia and Chile. Dr Naím posits six common characteristics, which we think it useful to discuss.

The first is that the protests all had their origins in relatively small, localised events, which suddenly snowballed – much to the surprise of the demonstrators themselves and even more so, to that of the respective governments – into mass, national movements encompassing big issues such as corruption, inequality, the high cost of living and governance.

Secondly, without exception, the governments in question reacted badly, which, of course, only served to fan the flames of dissent. Perhaps because the protests were so surprising, governments were incapable of understanding their nature and their root causes. Thus, their clumsy responses were almost certainly responsible for the spontaneous combustion that followed – the more heavy-handed the official response, the more fiery the demonstrations.

Dr Naím’s third point is that the protests did not begin with obvious leaders or established chains of command. It was almost as if they took on a life of their own, fuelled by the as yet not fully understood power of the social media and text messaging. This logically leads to the next problem.

As Dr Naím puts it, “there is no one with whom to negotiate or to imprison.” Well, this did not prevent the jailing of some protesters, especially the more unruly ones, but the fact is that governments appeared confused by the spontaneity of the protests and the collective action taken by the citizenry. In a strange way, the lack of obvious leaders would seem to have allowed the protests to continue for longer than they would perhaps have done otherwise. But, as even most of the protestors would acknowledge, there are limits to what total anarchy will accomplish.

Dr Naím further argues that it is impossible to predict the consequences of the protests. No expert, for example, foresaw the Arab Spring and the fall of autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. But Dr Naím is not forecasting the toppling of the governments of Brazil, Chile and Turkey, even though the political climate in those countries has obviously changed.

Finally, “prosperity does not buy stability” and for Dr Naím, the biggest surprise of the recent phenomenon has been that the protests have occurred in economically successful countries. In this respect, he harks back to American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 1968 thesis that in societies experiencing rapid change, the demand for public services grows faster than governments’ capacity to deliver. It is this gap that is the cause of dissatisfaction and, Dr Naím contends, the underlying reason for the protests and political turbulence we are now witnessing in different parts of the world. He does say that it can be transformed into a “positive force” for progress but he does not explain how.

In the latter respect, as we pointed out in Wednesday’s leader, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s response, legitimising “the voice of the street,” holds some promise for the sustainability of the democratic process in Brazil. Indeed, this approach may well be a guiding principle for governments everywhere but it is, for the moment, nothing more than damage control, essential as it is.

As Dr Naím has recognised, the protests were surprising in many respects. With hindsight and in identifying their common characteristics, it is easier to understand their origins and perhaps even discern a pattern. This alone does not necessarily make them predictable and it is debateable whether there is any early warning system that governments might adopt to prevent such protests. But governments can do better.

What Dr Naím’s argument and the very nature of the protests do reinforce, however, is the imperative of governments being alert to the needs and rising expectations of their citizens, even as they conduct their affairs in as transparent and accountable a manner as possible, whilst communicating clearly with the people and, most importantly, listening to them, all to pre-empt the causes of discontent – good governance, in other words.

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