Does protest work? That’s a question I’ve asked a few times, usually when opening an email inviting me to turn out in the rain to tramp past Westminster for some cause or other. My usual answer has been ‘no’ – you can get a million people in the streets for an obvious cause like stopping the Iraq war and it won’t make a blind bit of difference.
Big protests assume that governments can’t ignore a large enough group of people, which isn’t true. The government is quite capable of ignoring large groups of people and does so on a daily basis, whether they’re marching past their offices or not.
Then again, there’s no shortage of stories from around the world of people demanding change and getting it. Maybe it’s just a matter of circumstances, of seizing the opportune moment?
A recent paper from the Initiative for Policy Dialogue has studied the wave of global protests that have swept the world over the past few years – Occupy camps, food riots, Arab Spring protests, austerity marches, the whole shebang. They’ve noted the frequency, analysed who was protesting and at whom, what they wanted, and whether the protest succeeded.
Their conclusions are that “63% of the protests covered in the study achieved neither their intended demands nor their expressed grievances in the short-term.”
On average then, protestors are getting concessions 37% of the time. That actually sounds like a pretty good ratio to me, especially since many of the things people protest about can only be addressed over time, and incremental change is the only kind people are going to get.
Unsurprisingly, some demands are more likely to be met than others. Half of those 37% of wins relate to “political, legal and social rights, including the right to information and government transparency.” Economic achievements are trickier and of those, labour related demands are far more likely to succeed than protests about tax, pensions, subsidies, market reforms or austerity. Below that, “global issues and economic justice appear the most difficult areas to achieve change”.
So there you have it. Protest does work, sometimes, depending on what you’re asking for. Which is obvious really, and maybe I should be less negative about it.
Those interested in making change happen will find lots more to talk about in the rest of the research, which you can download here.