2. The case for global discontent

There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear. (Stills, 1966[1])

This report contends that we are living in an era of global discontent. Its publication coincides with the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, a series of spontaneous yet connected social uprisings across the Middle East against authoritarian leaders following decades of perceived misrule. Fast forward to 2019, when large-scale protests engulfed countries across five regions, most notably Latin America. Even amid the restrictions of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, people have taken continued to take to the streets in 2020 and 2021: the Black Lives Matter protests that began in the United States in 2020 inspired similar protests in many countries. In January 2021, demonstrators disputing the results of the United States presidential election stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, perhaps the foremost symbol of modern democracy.

The economic trends identified in Chapter 1 are not sufficient explanation for these protests. True, they provide crucial context: it is likely that worsening labour conditions, insecure incomes and hunger will erode people’s quality of life, that inequality will weaken social cohesion and that environmental crisis will provoke a backlash. Yet, as this chapter explains, discontent is not concentrated in the poorest countries nor among the most deprived individuals; rather, frustration seems to be most intense among those who feel that they have something to gain, and vulnerability felt most keenly by those with something to lose. Meanwhile, societies around the world have tolerated varying degrees of inequality for generations.

Moreover, discontent cannot be measured by protests alone; doing so would imply that it is only people who take to the streets that are angry or feel powerless. This chapter complements data on civil unrest with other political indicators that have particular resonance for democratic systems of governance. It also analyses public attitude surveys to hear how people are feeling and to better understand their grievances. These subjective indicators elucidate what this chapter labels the “contingent” causes of discontent: the day-to-day economic worries and frustrations with government that give impetus to political action.

In broad terms, these contingent factors reflect the changes that people most want to see in their lives. However, their grievances cannot be understood (or fixed) in isolation. To understand discontent fully – and how governments might respond to it – also requires an appreciation of the deep-seated, longer-term phenomena that influence people’s expectations, condition their behaviour and shape societies. This report argues that discontent emerges from interaction between the contingent factors discussed in this chapter and the structural phenomena analysed in Chapter 3.

To demonstrate the existence and extent of discontent, this report starts by examining four interconnected indicators: civil unrest, (dis)trust in public institutions, satisfaction with democracy and voter turnout. Comparing these phenomena across regions and over time, this section considers the extent to which discontent might be generalised across different countries. Where possible, it seeks to disaggregate results, in line with the evidence from Chapter 1 that different groups are likely to have different perceptions about how well a political or economic system is working. These indicators contain a bias towards countries where protest is a legitimate means of political expression, free and fair elections take place, and there is a democracy with which to be satisfied. As this chapter notes, democracy has weakened in many countries in recent years, which might itself be a source of discontent.

The most visible manifestations of discontent occur in the streets. However, two points are important to note at the outset. First, certain forms of civil unrest, such as protests and general strikes, are a legitimate form of political participation and a democratic right in many countries: they do not necessarily imply that a political system is failing. Indeed, an increase in protests can be a sign of democratic consolidation. Second, an absence of protests, strikes or other forms of political participation in countries where these are not permitted does not imply that citizens are happy with the government. That said, civil unrest is a particularly important indicator of discontent, since it represents a larger commitment from participants than other articulations discussed here, and it can also impose long-term costs on the economy as a whole (Matta, Appleton and Bleaney, 2017[2]).

Data from a range of sources indicate that there has been a sharp increase in civil unrest during the decade 2010-19. The Mass Mobilization Data Project (MMDP), which logs anti-government protests involving at least 50 people in 162 countries (although not the United States) between 1990 and March 2020, shows that protest incidence globally declined between 2005 and 2009 but rose substantially in the subsequent five years (Figure 2.1). Although protests declined in the following three years, they peaked again in 2019. These trends are visible across all regions. The finding for 2019 was echoed by Verisk Maplecroft, which identified a significant increase in the number and severity of incidents of civil unrest during 2019: protests affected 47 jurisdictions – one-quarter of the global total – across five continents (2020[3]).

Measures to contain COVID-19 resulted in a marked reduction in protests around the world between March and May 2020. However, as the year progressed, the number of protests rose sharply to exceed their pre-pandemic peak. Campbell and Hribernik predict that unrest will become more prevalent in 2021-22, identifying 75 countries as being at high risk of unrest, with a deterioration of democratic institutions and reductions in subsidies for food and fuel expected to be key factors behind this increase (2020[4]).

The surge in protests is corroborated by the Cross National Time Series (CNTS) database, which records instances of political instability in 117 countries. Korotayev, Meshcherina and Shishkin find “explosive global growth in anti-government demonstrations, riots, general strikes, terrorist attacks/guerrilla warfare, and purges” over the last decade (2018[6]). There was an eightfold increase in the average annual number of protests in 2010-15 compared with 2000-10, a sixfold increase in the number of anti-government demonstrations and a fourfold increase in the number of strikes (although there has been a sharp decline in the number of coups). As Funke, Schularick and Trebesch show when examining the political consequences of financial crashes, annual average incidents of unrest between 2010 and 2012 were higher than in the 1960s, when the last major spike in unrest visible from CNTS data occurred (2016[7]).

The Reported Social Unrest Index shows a sharp increase in the number of countries experiencing unrest during the 2010s across all regions (Barrett et al., 2020[8]). The authors also find that unrest is temporally and spatially correlated: unrest in one country increases the likelihood of further unrest in that country and of unrest in neighbouring countries. This index is calibrated with information from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which has time series data on riots and unrest for fewer countries than the MMDP or the CNTS but provides more granular information (2020[9]). Its data for Africa confirm a sharp increase in civil unrest across the continent, with a particularly dramatic increase in North Africa.

According to the MMDP, the proportion of protests globally that were violent fluctuated between 1991 and 2019. In 2019, 28.7% of protests were violent, fractionally higher than in 1991. In the intervening years, the proportion fell to as low as 15.6% in 2003; it is notable that there was a jump of 9.3 percentage points in the proportion of protests that were violent between 2018 and 2019. Data for Africa and Asia-Pacific shed greater light on these global trends (Figure 2.2). The proportion of protests that were violent fell rapidly in the Asia-Pacific region in the 1990s but trended upwards from 2003 onwards, eventually returning to the same level as 1991. The proportion of protests in Africa that were violent remained relatively high until 2007, whereupon it started to decline even as the overall number of protests started to increase.

The tendency for protests in Africa to increase during the 2010s while at the same time becoming less violent is consistent with AfDB/OECD/UNDP findings that “[these] widespread democratic and peaceful forms of public demands often indicate both vibrant civil societies as well as progress in political freedom across the continent” (2017[10]). That report also shows that there has been a sharp decline in politically driven protests, strikes and demonstrations. Before 2013, political protests accounted for the majority of such incidents, but thereafter, economic factors accounted for the majority of protests: one-third of all protests in Africa between 2014 and 2016 related to employment issues (AfDB/OECD/UNDP, 2017[10]).

The relationship between political freedom and protest complicates the use of the latter as an indicator of discontent. The risks and costs of demonstrating in a repressive state are generally far higher than in a liberal democracy. Moreover, the nature of the social contract is likely to be very different between democratic and authoritarian states, such that protests in authoritarian states are reserved for extreme situations rather than a part of political life (Hinnebusch, 2020[11]). Even so, there is evidence of an upward trend in protests even in autocracies in the decade 2010-19 (Figure 2.3). Data from the Mass Mobilization in Autocracies Database, which tracks 70 countries that are or were until recently autocracies, indicate that protests spiked in autocracies across Africa, the Americas and Europe in 2011 and trended upwards in all regions between 2015 and 2018 (Weidmann and Rød, 2019[12]).

It is not only the state of a country’s political development that influences the propensity to protest; it is also the state of its economy. As Chapter 3 discusses in greater detail, economic protests might reflect frustrations that arise when living standards have not improved as expected or when some groups within a country are benefiting from economic growth and others not (a story that also emerges from Chapter 1). Evidence suggests that economic protests are not concentrated in the countries with the weakest economies and that it is not the poorest members of society who are most likely to protest. Labour unrest in the People’s Republic of China (hereafter, “China”) – the world’s foremost economic success story of the past three decades – underlines this point (Box 2.1), as does the case of Chile discussed later.

Korotayev et al. use CNTS data to examine the relationship between civil unrest and economic development at a national level, as measured by per capita income (2018[14]). Specifically, they test the hypothesis put forward by Olson (1963[15]) and Huntingdon (1968[16]), among others, that political instability is positively associated with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita up to a certain point, after which the relationship becomes negative. While the aggregate Sociopolitical Destabilization Index (SDI) produces relatively weak support for this hypothesis between 1960 and 2015, the individual components of the SDI yield stronger results. The authors demonstrate inverted U-shaped curves in anti-government protests, riots, strikes and government crises, although each follows somewhat different dynamics: for example, while anti-government protests increase sharply by country income up to the upper middle-income category, the decline between upper middle-income and high-income countries is relatively small. Meanwhile, the authors find a strong negative correlation between coups and income per capita across the income distribution, suggesting that attempts to overthrow the government (or the political system) rather than to encourage a change of direction are concentrated in the poorest countries.

Mirroring the heightened propensity for protests among middle-income countries, individuals who belong to the middle class are most likely to take to the streets. According to Chen and Suen, who track protest participation in 78 countries between 1994 and 2007, low-income and high-income groups are much less likely to participate in anti-government protests than those in the middle of the income distribution (2017[17]). The authors link this to pessimism among poorer members of society and optimism among those in the middle classes; while the former do not think that a protest will lead to any change in their situation, the middle class consider change to be possible. These findings echo, among others, Acemoglu and Robinson, who argue that “almost all revolutionary movements were led by middle class actors” (2006[18]).

Ianchovichina, Lili Mottaghi and Devarajan demonstrate the importance of middle-class dissatisfaction in driving protests during the Arab Spring in 2010-11 (2015[19]). They find that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was the only region in the world where subjective well-being was declining sharply towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, even though economic data and development indicators more broadly painted a positive picture. These indicators did not capture growing frustration with the quality of housing, public transport and health care, as well as with a lack of job opportunities. While the authors find no evidence to support claims that inequality caused the Arab Spring, they do identify it as a possible cause of ethnic conflict in the region in subsequent years. Chapter 3 examines in greater detail the relationship between inequality, discontent and conflict.

Has there been, as Barrett et al. (2020[8]) suggest, a degree of contagion of protests between countries? Badie thinks so (2020[20]). He identifies commonalities between many of the protests that took place around the world in 2019 (in advanced and developing countries alike), as well as differences between these protests and those of the Arab Spring. Where the latter intended to topple administrations perceived as corrupt or ineffective, the protests of 2019 lacked a specific agenda or programme and were not at heart political. Rather, they were motivated by appeals for systemic change and for people to be treated with dignity. Badie also contends that, although there was an element of nationalism to these demonstrations, they were inspired by a set of grievances that were common among protesters in different countries.

There have also been high-profile examples of global social movements. The Occupy movement protested against inequality in more than 80 countries in 2011 (Taylor, 2011[21]). The #MeToo movement has opened a channel through which women around the world can speak out against gender-based abuse and discrimination, especially since 2017 (Stone and Vogelstein, 2019[22]). Protests in September 2019 against government inaction on the climate crisis organised by Fridays for Future were attended by an estimated 6 million people (Taylor, Watts and Bartlett, 2019[23]). In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement against systemic racial discrimination spread across the United States in a matter of hours and thence to more than 60 countries (Shaw and Kidwai, 2020[24]).

Although less visible than active protests, large-scale political disengagement can provide equally telling evidence of discontent within a society. In a democratic state, participating in national elections is widely perceived as the minimum contribution a citizen should make to the core functioning of a political system, indispensable for its legitimacy and renewal. Voter turnout is thus the most commonly cited metric for confidence in the prevailing political system, since “higher voter turnout is in most cases a sign of the vitality of democracy, while lower turnout is usually associated with voter apathy and mistrust of the political process” (IDEA, 2018[33]).

Turnout in parliamentary elections has declined consistently in most regions since at least the 1960s and at an increasing rate since the 1980s (Figure 2.4). The largest fall took place in Europe, where turnout declined by more than 20 percentage points between the mid-1970s and mid-2010s to 65%. Turnout also fell significantly in regions with less established political systems: in the former Soviet republics, whose political transition following the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the culmination of the third wave of democracy (Huntington, 1991[35]), turnout fell from 67.4% in the period 1995-2000 to 58.6% in 2013-18. Turnout in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) fluctuated between the mid-1960s and today but is much lower now than during the decolonisation period. The fact that voting is compulsory in some countries and voluntary in others explains some of the difference between regions, but it is notable that turnout has fallen even in countries where voting is mandatory, particularly in Latin America.

Discontent can also lead to higher voter turnout. Frustration with the political system might encourage people to vote for new parties or political movements that promise to disrupt the status quo. It is notable, for example, that the 2020 US presidential election saw the highest turnout since 1900 (United States Elections Project, 2020[36]). Blais and Kostelka find that increases in turnout are in turn likely to increase satisfaction with democracy rather than the other way around, although the authors recognise that this effect might not persist if a particular candidate is defeated (2018[37]). This chapter later examines in greater detail who votes in different regions as part of a discussion about whether people feel that they have a voice in their political system.

The complexities of voter turnout require evidence of satisfaction with democracy – understood as the way the political system functions – beyond the ballot box. According to the 2020 edition of the Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report, dissatisfaction with democracy is at its highest level since the series began in 1995 (Foa et al., 2020[38]). The share of individuals who report that they are “dissatisfied” with democracy rose from 47.9% to 57.5% between 1995 and 2015, with most of the increase occuring since 2005. Overall, dissatisfaction is higher in developing countries, although this is driven in large part by particularly high rates of dissatisfaction in Latin America. Southeast Asia offers the only regional bright spot; dissatisfaction has fallen by almost 30 percentage points since the mid-1990s.

Foa and Mounk find evidence of a long-term deconsolidation of support for liberal democracy (2017[39]). Looking at how democracy is perceived around the world, the authors find a sharp decline in the proportion of people who consider it “essential to live in a democracy” and point to a major generational divide in this indicator, with “the proportion of younger citizens who believe it is essential to live in a democracy falling to a minority”. The authors also argue that “disaffection with the democratic form of government is accompanied by a wider skepticism toward liberal institutions. Citizens are growing more disaffected with established political parties, representative institutions, and minority rights.” The authors argue that this lack of support is exploited by anti-system political parties and movements that narrow countries’ political agency and weaken democratic institutions by concentrating power in the executive.

Regional opinion surveys provide mixed evidence for democratic deconsolidation, although these should be understood in light of differing interpretations of democracy in different places. Across Africa, the proportion of citizens who believe that democracy is preferable to any other sort of government stayed more or less constant between 2000 and 2018, albeit with considerable variation by country (Figure 2.5A). The Asiabarometer asks respondents whether they agree with the statement “democracy has its problems, but it is still the best form of government”. The proportion who “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with this statement remained constant at 89% between 2011 and 2016. At the country level, support ranged from 80% in the Philippines to 95% in Japan (Inoguchi, 2016[42]).

Country experiences are also heterogeneous across Latin America, but on average, there appears to be a downward trend; 52% of respondents across the region believed that democracy was preferable to any other sort of government in 2016, compared to 59% in 1996 (Figure 2.5B). Latinobarómetro reports a sharp rise in the proportion of respondents who are not satisfied with the way democracy is working in their country, from 51% in 2009 to 71% in 2018 (2018[43]). Only 24% believed that democracy was functioning well in 2018, down from 44% in 2009. Only 9% of Brazilians were “satisfied” with democracy in 2018. The report finds that supporters of democracy in the region tend to be male, middle class, relatively well educated and relatively old; they vote, possess assets, own or run a business, approve of the government, and identify themselves as being at a specific point on the political spectrum.

The current state of democracy globally seems to justify this dissatisfaction. Of the 167 countries included in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, democracy weakened in 116 during 2020 and strengthened in only 38 (EIU, 2021[44]). Every region’s score declined on average; the declines were particularly pronounced among states that already showed authoritarian tendencies. According to the same source, just under 50% of the world’s population live in a democracy of some sort and less than 10% live in what the authors consider to be a full democracy.

These findings are echoed by Repucci and Slipowitz, who find that democracy weakened in 73 countries in 2020 and strengthened in just 23 – the largest “democracy gap” in 15 years, and the 15th consecutive year in which democracy has been on the wane (2021[45]). The authors attribute the deterioration of democracy in 2020 to the COVID-19 pandemic: “[as] COVID-19 spread during the year, governments across the democratic spectrum repeatedly resorted to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedoms like movement and assembly, and arbitrary or violent enforcement of such restrictions by police and nonstate actors.” They calculate that nearly 75% of the world’s population lives in a country where demcoracy weakened in 2020. Lührmann et al. also identify a widespread tendency towards autocracy but find evidence of growing resistance that is of relevance to this report: the proportion of countries that witnessed a mass pro-democracy protest was 44% in 2019, up from 27% in 2009 (2020[46]).

The quality of democracy deteriorated across developing countries during the 2000s. According to Bertelsmann Stiftung, which analyses democracy according to variables such as state capacity, political participation, rule of law, democratic institutions and political and social integration, democracy weakened between 2006 and 2020 in Eastern Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) (although these regions perform much better than some others) as well as in the MENA and SSA (Figure 2.6) (2020[47]). Over the same period, democracy strengthened in Asia and Oceania and in post-Soviet republics. In the MENA, the decline in the quality of democracy reversed between 2008 and 2014, a period that spans the Arab Spring, but accelerated thereafter, leaving the region far below others. Chapter 3 discusses in greater detail the political causes and consequences of discontent.

Trust is the glue that holds societies together and is the basis for collective action. This report argues that distrust in government is an important manifestation of discontent. The purpose of a national government is to protect and promote the interests of a country’s citizens; a decline in trust indicates lower belief that it will perform this function. Distrust in institutions can also make it difficult for the government to implement reforms to improve well-being or to implement measures in times of crisis. It is important to look beneath the aggregate numbers, since people’s trust in public institutions is likely to vary according to their current position in society, especially in contexts of high inequality. It is also important to note that trust in the government (and in general) reflects both short- and long-term (especially cultural) factors.

Confidence in national governments declined between 2006 and 2018 across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the MENA and LAC, the region that exhibited the lowest trust in government at just 31% (Figure 2.7). Meanwhile, trust in government rose across Asia during this period; while it was particularly high in South and Southeast Asia, levels of trust in East Asia were only just above those in LAC, even though the two regions witnessed very different economic trajectories over the period. Levels of trust were also high in SSA and showed a relatively strong increase between 2006 and 2018.

Trust in institutions does not always rise with income. Confidence in national governments varied by household income quintile in 2018, declining with income in LAC, the MENA and SSA, and increasing with income in OECD countries (Figure 2.8). The finding for LAC is significant, given its high level of inequality: it does not seem to be the most disadvantaged individuals who trust the government least. The same applies for SSA, another region with many highly unequal countries, but the opposite is the case in OECD countries. Gallup shows that those who live in cities tend to have significantly less confidence in their government than those who live in the countryside; just 22% of those who live in Latin American cities have confidence in their government, for example (2019[48]). Young people are more likely to have confidence in government, although this varies by region.

There is considerable between-country variation in trends across the LAC region, which overall witnessed the greatest decline in confidence in national governments (Figure 2.9). The change in those expressing confidence in their government in LAC ranges from +28 percentage points in Ecuador to -26 percentage points in Argentina. National protests in Ecuador in the latter half of 2019 suggest that this increase might have been short-lived.

Government is not a monolith: individuals may have different perceptions of local and national government. Attitudes towards local and national institutions differ between Africa and Latin America but tend to be similar within countries (Figure 2.10). Among African countries, trust in the parliament or national assembly tends, on average, to be slightly higher than trust in the elected local government council. The opposite appears to be true in Latin America (although the metric is slightly different); on average, corruption is perceived to be more widespread among members of parliament than among local councillors. Across Asia, the tendency is for people to trust local government more than they do national government, except in China (Wu and Wilkes, 2018[49]).

This section examines how individuals assess their quality of life, both to find evidence of discontent and to start understanding the factors behind it. One lesson that has already emerged from this report is the need for a broad range of indicators to gauge the mood of society: GDP growth is no guarantee of social cohesion, inequality is no guarantee of revolution, and the poorest members of society (or the poorest countries) are not necessarily the least happy with their government. Subjective indicators shed light on how economic factors and government performance affect people’s outlook, and on why people might believe protests are the only way of achieving the changes they want to see in their country.

His August Majesty chided the bureaucrats for failing to understand a simple principle: the principle of the second bag. (Kapuściński, 1983[50])

Discontent usually has an object: people are angry or frustrated about something. Often, it also requires a target: a someone to blame for the something. As the institution ultimately empowered to ensure citizens can lead the lives they wish across economic, political and social domains (domains that invariably and extensively overlap), governments often become this target. Understanding the contingent causes of discontent requires first understanding why people are dissatisfied.

Latinobarómetro provides a snapshot of the sources of discontent across Latin America, as well as the breadth of dissatisfaction, prior to the unrest in 2019 (2018[43]). On average, 35% of respondents across the region classified economic problems, such as unemployment, low salaries, the cost of living or the state of the economy, as the greatest problem facing the country. For 19%, crime and public security was the biggest issue, while just under 10% identified either the political situation, corruption or public services (health, education and basic services) as the main challenge. On average, only 12% of Latin Americans considered the economic situation in their countries to be “good” or “very good” in 2018, down from 25% in 2013. However, discontent is not confined to the countries that are performing worst in these areas: Chile has one of the biggest and best-performing economies in Latin America and a well-established democracy but was nonetheless witness to the most widespread and impactful unrest in 2019.

Similar levels of concern and dissatisfaction with the economy and public services are evident in Africa. According to the 2019-20 Afrobarometer survey, 35% of respondents in 18 countries identified jobs as a priority for the government (Logan and Gyimah-Boadi, 2020[51]). According to previous waves, 73% of Africans surveyed in 2016-18 thought that their government was doing a bad job at creating jobs, up from 69% in 2005-06 (Makanga and Msafiri, 2020[52]). The second most cited priority (34%) was health care. On average, only 23% participants thought that the economic situation in their country was good or very good, while 63% considered it bad or very bad. The survey showed a marked decline in positive sentiment (and/or a significant increase in expectations) across Africa in recent years: 65% of respondents felt that their country was going in the wrong direction in 2019-20 versus 50% of those who took part in the 2011-13 survey (Logan and Gyimah-Boadi, 2020[51]).

The prominence of economic problems in Africa and Latin America points towards a trend seen more widely over the past decade or so whereby more and more people are finding it difficult to make ends meet. According to Gallup data, the OECD is the only region where more than 75% of the population is either “living comfortably” or “getting by” (Figure 2.11). While East Asia and Southeast Asia are not far behind, barely half the population of South Asia enjoys this sense of security, although in the case of the latter, this proportion rose between 2007 and 2018. Over the same period, economic security declined in MENA, LAC, OECD and SSA countries. Deeper examination of this data shows that just 39% of individuals in the bottom income quintile globally can live comfortably or get by on their current earnings; this falls to 30% and 26% in the MENA and SSA, respectively (Gallup, 2019[48]).

Where a large proportion of the population is struggling to make ends meet, even a small increase in the cost of living or reduction in incomes is liable to exacerbate discontent; as Box 2.2 on Chile demonstrates and Chapter 3 explains in greater detail, the resultant protests are likely to articulate a much broader range of grievances. This phenomenon is particularly important for governments that are introducing tax reforms to increase public revenues or to achieve environmental objectives. As Chapter 4 discusses, tax policy will be a critical tool in promoting a sustainable and equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic but tax reforms are likely to be extremely contentious, especially where the pandemic has left large portions of the population worse-off.

Frustrated expectations reinforce the discontent caused by economic insecurity. In addition to people’s feelings about their current situation, their feelings about their past and future personal economic direction – and that of their families and communities – are key ingredients of discontent. Tocqueville noted that the strongest revolutionary sentiment in France during the Revolution was found in regions where prosperity had been growing rather than in regions that were economically stagnant (1856[62]). He attributed this to the frustration that comes when rising expectations generated by a positive trajectory are subsequently disappointed. By this theory, widespread discontent does not require economic collapse; it is sufficient that citizens do not experience the improvements in living standards they expected. Indices around happiness and well-being gradually delink from income and are shaped by a number of different quantitative and subjective factors, including the perception of the quality of public goods and jobs, as well as a sense of belonging (OECD/CAF/ECLAC/EU, 2019[63]).

During the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, life across all regions was failing to meet people’s expectations. According to Gallup, the average person in 2014 rated their life at 5.4/10 but thought that in five years their life would be significantly better (6.7/10). In no region were citizens able to fulfil their expectations (Figure 2.12). Indeed, the average life ranking in 2019 decreased to 5.1. It is reasonable to assume that these frustrated expectations have played a role in discontent and also that the fall in absolute well-being suffered by large portions of the population as a result of COVID-19 will worsen this phenomenon.

Confidence in the ability to improve one’s standard of living is not universal, and many are nostalgic for the past. The Pew Spring 2018 Global Attitudes survey found that a median of 57% of people across 27 nations surveyed felt that they had a good chance to improve their standard of living. Citizens of emerging economies were slightly more likely to feel this (the median in these countries was 62%) than those in advanced economies (55%) (Pew Research Center, 2019[64]). The results of a survey of 38 advanced and developing countries showed that fewer than 50% of respondents felt that life is better today than 50 years ago. In 23 of these countries, respondents were more likely to say that life was better 50 years ago than today or had not changed (Pew Research Center, 2017[65]).

Underlining the central importance of job creation, work is still widely perceived as the key to a better life. Gallup indicates that 82% of people globally in 2018 believed that people in their country could get ahead by working hard – unchanged since 2006 (2019[48]). However, this average masks diverging trends in different regions: the proportion of respondents who held this belief rose in SSA (+1 percentage point), Southeast Asia (+4 percentage points) and, by a particularly large margin, East Asia (+24 percentage points). However, it declined in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe (-5 percentage points), South Asia (-5 percentage points), the MENA (-4 percentage points) and Latin America (-2 percentage points). The proportion was unchanged in OECD countries.

Citizens count on their government to help them live the life they choose through the provision of public goods, such as security, education, health, social benefits and a clean environment. Public goods are also a key mechanism of redistribution and for promoting equality of opportunity. Where governments fail to provide these services or these services do not meet people’s expectations, dissatisfaction is likely to follow, leading to spontaneous protests or longer-term loss of trust in institutions.

Dissatisfaction with public services is widespread. On average across the 21 OECD countries covered by the 2018 OECD Risks that Matter Survey, 51% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had access to good-quality public education, making it the public service with the highest approval rating (2019[66]). Fewer than half of respondents said that they had access to good quality and affordable health care, while one-third considered that they had access to good-quality public housing, and fewer than one-third said that they had access to good quality public employment services. A finding of particular concern given the ageing populations in many OECD countries is that people were least satisfied with the provision of long-term care.

The same survey reveals broad dissatisfaction with social protection provision: on average across the 21 countries, only about 25% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the government provided adequate income support in the event of unemployment or becoming a parent, and just 20% in the event of illness, disability or old age (OECD, 2019[66]). This contributes to a majority of people feeling that they are not receiving a fair share of public benefits for the taxes they pay: 59% of respondents. It should be noted that Government at a Glance 2019 gives a much more positive picture of public services for the OECD as a whole (OECD, 2019[67]). Based on Gallup data, it shows that 70% of citizens in the OECD are satisfied with the availability of health care, and 66% are satisfied with education services.

Although not detailed in these studies, provision (and perception) of public services is likely to vary by region, discrepancies laid bare by COVID-19. As the OECD points out with reference to OECD countries, “[rural] regions tend to be equipped with fewer hospital beds … In 2018, regions close to metropolitan areas had almost twice as many hospital beds per 1 000 inhabitants than remote regions. This gap has grown significantly since 2000” (2020[68]).

The OECD uses Gallup data to examine satisfaction with public services in the LAC region. It finds that public satisfaction with health care declined from 55% in 2007 to 49% in 2018, while satisfaction with the education system and schools dropped from 65% to 63% (2020[69]). Only 34% of respondents on average expressed confidence in the judicial system in 2018 – a slight increase from the proportion in 2007 but well below the OECD average (56%). Government at a Glance Southeast Asia 2019 finds much more positive results: across the ten countries in the region, 79% of respondents on average were satisfied with healthcare provision, 83% with the education system and schools, and 69% had confidence in the judiciary (OECD/ADB, 2019[70]). The level of satisfaction with health care and the judiciary had increased since 2007, indicating that governments are keeping pace with expectations in the region.

The African Economic Outlook 2017 reported that more people were dissatisfied than were satisfied with the availability of new jobs, access to quality health care, public transport, roads and housing (AfDB/OECD/UNDP, 2017[10]). More people were satisfied than dissatisfied with education and water. Gizelis, Pickering and Urdal warn that disorderly urbanisation is likely to exacerbate frustration at the poor quality or low provision of services, leading to unrest in peri-urban areas in particular (2021[71]).

Discontent might worsen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from its toll on people’s economic situation, it is also exposing weaknesses in public services and, through its impact on fiscal revenues, might make it harder to improve these services in the future (a point to which the report returns in Chapter 4). In a study that reverberates with today, Davies depicts a J-curve to demonstrate how revolutions have occurred when a prolonged period of improvement is interrupted by a sudden economic shock, which creates an intolerable gap between people’s actual conditions and those their previous experiences had led them to expect (1962[72]). More recently, Barrett and Chen identify a positive correlation between pandemics and unrest across 130 countries but point out that the effect is not instantaneous: epidemics tend to create a period of relative calm before unrest returns (2021[73]).

The fears and frustrations documented in this section resonate with so-called “development traps” (OECD/CAF/ECLAC/EU, 2019[63]), which constrain national development and prevent improvements in well-being. These traps, which are evident in developing countries across the world, are reflected in low levels of economic productivity, weaknesses in public institutions, social vulnerability and environmentally unsustainable economic models. Chapter 4 returns to the first three of these traps to explain how approaches that harness popular participation can achieve a double dividend, providing an exit from these traps while also strengthening social cohesion and the bonds between society and the state.

The manifestations of discontent examined at the start of this chapter point to weaknesses in the way states and societies interact. A situation where citizens are protesting more and voting less suggests that elections are not providing an opportunity to effect the changes they would like to see in their country. Declining trust in the government indicates citizens do not feel their interests are represented and suggests insufficient opportunities for co-operation. These tendencies suggest a dearth of “political efficacy”, a phenomenon defined by Campbell, Gurin and Miller as “the feeling that individual political action does have, or can have, an impact upon the political process, i.e. that it is worthwhile to perform one’s civic duties” (1954[74]). Political efficacy can largely be summed up by a simpler term: voice.

Opportunities for citizens to express their voice are declining in many regions. According to Government at a Glance 2019, in 2016, only 37% of people in 23 (mainly European) OECD countries on average reported having a say in what the government did, slightly down from 2014 (OECD, 2019[67]). The same report identified a strong positive correlation between voice, satisfaction with democracy, and trust in parliament in the same countries. There was wide variation among countries, with about 74% of respondents in Switzerland reporting having a say versus around 10% of those in Italy. From 2014 to 2016, the percentage of the population who believed that they could influence government action increased the most in Germany (+14.4 percentage points) and Iceland (+24.5 percentage points), while the steepest declines occurred in Poland (-12.4 percentage points) and Sweden (-9.9 percentage points).

Large sections of the population in many countries feel ignored by their government. Some 61% of people in a sample of 27 countries in 2018 thought that elected officials did not care what ordinary people thought. In addition, 60% stated that things do not change very much no matter who wins an election, with values varying from 42% in Spain to 82% in Greece (Pew Research Center, 2019[64]). In all countries covered by the survey, there was considerably more dissatisfaction with democracy among those who said that elected officials did not care what people think. In Nigeria, for example, those who said that elected officials do not care what ordinary people think were 21 percentage points more likely to be dissatisfied with the way democracy was working in their country than those who said that elected officials do care. The figures for Hungary, Mexico and India were +39 , +19 and +18 percentage points, respectively.

In Africa, citizens’ confidence in the capacity of elections to bring about change appears to have weakened significantly. In 2019-20, an average of 42% of respondents from 18 countries participating in the Afrobarometer survey believed that elections ensure representatives in parliament reflect the view of voters and enable voters to remove leaders who do not do what the people want (M’Cormack-Hale and Zupork Dome, 2021[75]). In the 11 countries surveyed regularly since 2008-09, this belief declined from 56% to 45% over the intervening decade. However, this decline has not affected citizens’ belief in the importance of elections: on average, 73% of respondents said that they want to choose their leaders through regular, open and honest elections (M’Cormack-Hale and Zupork Dome, 2021[75]). According to Kuenzi and Lambright, the propensity to vote in Africa is positively associated with age, living in rural areas, membership of voluntary organisations, affiliation to a political party, satisfaction with the government and dissatisfaction with the state of the economy (2005[76]).

The picture of who votes in Latin America is complicated by the prevalence of compulsory voting legislation. However, Haime shows that women tend to vote more than men and that “identifying with the party of the incumbent president, being exposed to vote-buying incentives and having a high level of interest in politics increase turnout” (2017[77]). The study also finds that “older, educated and employed citizens have higher probabilities of voting”, a finding echoed by Carreras and Castaneda (2014[78]). Meanwhile, Tambe finds that the propensity to vote in East Asia is weakly affected by socio-economic variables (with the exception of age) but is strongly connected to institutional factors (2017[79]). Membership of trade unions and other civil society organisations increases the chances of voting, as do proportional representation, parliamentarism and closeness of elections, as well as the quality of elections (in terms of being free and fair). Sanborn confirms the importance of the quality of Asia’s democratic institutions for sustaining democracy in the region (2018[80]).

Interactions with officials are an important opportunity to influence the government outside the ballot box, as well as to build bonds of trust and reciprocity between citizens and the state. The proportion of people globally who voiced their opinion to an official in the month before participating in the Gallup World Poll fell from 17% in 2006 to 15% in 2018, although there is considerable variation by region (2019[48]). Latin America, for example, saw a 9 percentage point fall between 2006 and 2018, while there was a 12 percentage point increase in Southeast Asia. The relationship between income and voice also does not appear to be straightforward; individuals in lower income quintiles participate less in Eastern Europe, LAC and the MENA, but the pattern is different in other regions (Figure 2.13).

Chapter 3 returns to the question of who has a voice, whether through activism, elected office or participation in the day-to-day organisation of public life, in determining the way countries are run. While greater citizen participation is a sine qua non of inclusive societies, Chapter 4 explains how inequalities in participation can reinforce rather than weaken pre-existing power structures.

Discontent has risen sharply around the world since the global financial crisis. Despite a brief lull, it is expected to worsen after the COVID-19 pandemic. The rise in protests has been widespread across the globe, although other indicators discussed here suggest that citizens are more frustrated in LAC, MENA and OECD countries than might be the case in other regions, notably Asia. The chapter also finds evidence that discontent is most visible in middle-income countries and is often driven by the middle classes. A picture emerges of progress interrupted, which the chapter links to a series of development traps – low productivity, weak institutions and social vulnerability – to which the report returns in Chapter 4.

Public attitude surveys tell a compelling story about what people want around the world: a stable economy, secure jobs, less corruption and better public goods. They also show that many people are struggling to get by and that their lives are not meeting their expectations. Many are also finding it hard to make their concerns heard, which is pushing them towards different avenues of engagement with the government. Yet this chapter sheds only partial light on when, why and how these worries and frustrations lead to the levels of discontent evident today. To understand these questions better, Chapter 3 looks at the structural and political factors that interact with the contingent factors discussed here.


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