Executive summary

Discontent has surged around the world since the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Although the COVID-19 pandemic cleared the streets temporarily, it also exposed and exacerbated the grievances and social fractures that were driving this unrest – factors that countries will need to address as they emerge from the pandemic and confront the worsening climate crisis. This edition of Perspectives on Global Development examines the nature and causes of discontent in developing countries and identifies possible responses to the phenomenon at local, national and international levels. These responses should aim not only to improve livelihoods and strengthen social cohesion but also to empower states and societies to address collectively the profound risks and uncertainties of the 21st century.

To begin, the report identifies an apparent paradox of discontent that underlines the importance of looking beyond gross domestic product (GDP) as an indicator of development: why were people increasingly unhappy before the COVID-19 pandemic when the global economy had performed so well? Over three decades from 1990 to 2019, developed and developing countries alike grew almost uninterruptedly. Per capita GDP and wealth rose, extreme poverty declined sharply, middle classes emerged in a large number of developing countries and living standards improved across multiple dimensions. The report identifies four keys to unlocking this paradox: widening inequality within countries; the fact that not all well-being indicators followed the same upwards trend as income and did not reach all parts of the population; the strains imposed on the global labour force; and the worsening environmental catastrophe. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded a number of these fault lines, with the most vulnerable members of societies the world over bearing the brunt of the harm caused to health and livelihoods.

The report then dives deeper into discontent itself. While showing that protests have risen over the past decade in all regions, it finds that middle-income countries and middle-class citizens are the main drivers of this increase. It also finds evidence of contagion and commonalities between countries that lend weight to a sense of generalised discontent. Acknowledging that evidence of discontent is visible not only in protests, the report also points to declining trust in government, declining voter turn-out and declining support for democracy as proof of citizens’ dissatisfaction. Although these variables are biased towards countries with democratic systems of government, protests have also been rising in authoritarian states.

Public attitude surveys from different regions reflect this discontent and articulate citizens’ most pressing worries. They reveal that many people were struggling to get by even before the pandemic and that life was falling far short of their expectations. Economic issues were a source of concern for many people around the world; so too were security, governance and public services. These concerns correspond to a number of traps that confront developing countries related to low productivity, weak institutions and social vulnerability. The report also emphasises the importance of voice: if people took to the streets or refused to vote, it was often because they were not being heard.

These factors alone do not explain the rise in discontent. The report contends that discontent emerges from interactions between the factors outlined above and fault lines within a country’s social and political context – a complexity exemplified by the relationship between inequality and discontent. These structural factors evolve over a longer timeframe and tend to be exacerbated by the megatrends of our age. The report identifies the erosion of traditional social networks and secondary institutions, the decline in interpersonal trust and the emergence and intensification of so-called culture wars as evidence of social atomisation and polarisation. Technology is exacerbating a number of these phenomena: digital divides are worsening inequalities and leaving some people feeling more alone or less satisfied with their lives, while the increasing use of online networks to share information risks exacerbating polarisation. Social media has emerged as an important tool for social movements to mobilise support.

At the same time, political systems are becoming less adept at mediating social divisions: political parties and identities are fragmenting, the space for compromise is shrinking and a winner-takes-all approach to politics is reinforcing inequality. The rise of populism, especially in the past decade, is a response to these political failures but there is little evidence it can provide answers to today’s challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity not only to reset political systems but also to revive the institutions through which collective action can thrive. Building back better will require a ground-up approach if it is to heal the divisions described in this report.

Faced with this combined challenge (exacerbated by the pandemic) of social fragmentation, deepening discontent and worsening economic outcomes, the report argues for approaches that address these elements simultaneously. The objective is a double dividend of better development outcomes and more collaborative and cohesive societies. Taking each of the aforementioned development traps in turn, the report explains how harnessing the power of social capital and promoting participation can (if done properly) generate a range of social and economic benefits. Meanwhile, the imperative of environmental sustainability needs to be hardwired into policy making across all areas of government.

National strategies for development that are inclusive in formulation, vision and implementation, and that are capable of adapting to changing circumstances, are needed to co-ordinate and sustain these directions. These strategies should be complemented by more experimental and decentralised approaches to public administration that build on co-operation between private citizens and public institutions. Realising this vision in the wake of the pandemic will face considerable challenges, not least the weakness of public finances and the growth in inequalities attributable to the crisis; international support for the recovery in developing countries will be vital.

There are also strong international dimensions to discontent. As COVID-19 has demonstrated, the causes of discontent often emerge from outside a country’s borders. Some two decades previously, anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle and elsewhere started to express discontent of a different form. Structural phenomena evident at the global level weaken the international community’s legitimacy and effectiveness in addressing these causes. An examination of multilateralism’s evolution shows how the strongest countries at the end of the Second World War have largely retained their power and how the interests of developing countries have been systematically under-represented. In recent decades, new phenomena, new actors and new rivalries have emerged on the world stage, leading to fragmentation and competition rather than co-operation, even when confronted by threats to global security.

To look at the international system with reference only to sovereign states is to miss a key piece of the discontent puzzle: the growing dominance of private interests over public institutions, which is locking countries into policies that are not socially or environmentally sustainable and weakening societies’ ability to respond to the changes and dangers of the world around them. It warns that this dominance is so engrained that profound changes are required at every level, from the local to the global. The Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement, universal commitments reached only five or six years ago, provide hope and a roadmap for averting catastrophe. However, a new multilateralism is required to deliver on these commitments – a multilateralism that is both empowered and empowering, that brings a much broader range of actors to the table, that is able to foster co-operation and share innovations, and that is capable of protecting the interests of people and the planet above all else.


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Photo credits: Cover design by Aida Buendía (OECD Development Centre) on the basis of images from Shutterstock.com.

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