2019 is being called “the year of protest.” A nexus of corruption, inequality, and unaccountable and unresponsive governments has galvanized citizens across the globe. “People are saying ‘pay attention to us, you are there to serve us,’” observed Nancy Lindborg, USIP president and CEO. This year’s wave of people power shows that governments—whether they are democratic, semi-democratic, or authoritarian—are not immune to collective civic pressure.

Thousands of people protesting corruption and the government's inability to provide basic services in Beirut on Oct. 23, 2019. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)
Thousands of people protesting corruption and the government's inability to provide basic services in Beirut on Oct. 23, 2019. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

We’ve witnessed nonviolent movements oust longtime, brutal dictators in Algeria and Sudan. In both Lebanon and Iraq, citizens overcame sectarian divides to force their prime ministers to resign. In other nations, like Chile and Colombia, nonviolent demonstrations are forcing leaders to backtrack on price hikes and make concessions. And protests have rattled authoritarian and backsliding governments in Egypt, Georgia, Poland, Russia, Zimbabwe and numerous other countries around the world.

This year’s protests also follow on the heels of several major social movements from 2018, including Armenia’s Velvet Revolution and Puerto Rico’s Renuncia Ja (Resign Now), as well as organized campaigns for transparency, accountability, and good governance in KenyaNigeriaSouth Africa, and Ukraine, and large-scale demonstrations in Haiti, Guatemala, Israel, Jordan, Mongolia, Peru, and Romania.

But, too often, these outcomes have also come with grim costs. Some demonstrations have disintegrated into riots marred by civilian looting, property destruction, and violence. Additionally, many hundreds of lives have been lost amid violent crackdowns—particularly in Iraq and Iran, where security forces have used live ammunition to suppress dissent, and in Nicaragua and Venezuela, where ongoing nonviolent struggles are facing lethal repression.

Even when a corrupt leader or powerful figure is out of the picture, protesters understand that the system that propped up that figure up remains intact. They also know from lived experience that corruption is linked to the wider problems they face—including unaccountable elites, poor public services, dismal educational and economic opportunities, scanty justice and human security, and violent conflict. “Since I was my daughter's age there have been the same rulers they are robbing the country—they are taking our rights,” said Lina, a Lebanese protester. “They give us promises and lies and we are still at the same place.”

Looking to the Future

What comes next? How can people power help foster long term stability and reform? How can we move from the year of protest to a new decade of transformation? What can we learn from the researchers, practitioners, social movements, and organized civic initiatives targeting corruption on the ground? To start the conversation, here are six takeaways:

  1. Systemic approach. Corruption functions in systems, making it virtually impossible to identify, punish, or reform all corruptors or stop all malfeasant transactions. Rather than view corruption as the actions of an individual or group, we need to redefine it as a system of abuse of entrusted power for private, collective, or political gain. These systems often involve a complex set of relationships with established, vested interests that can operate vertically within an institution or horizontally across political, economic, and social spheres in a society or transnationally.
  2. Nonviolent action strategies. To impact, and ultimately transform, systems of graft and abuse, my research has found that successful citizen-driven initiatives have used the following strategies:
    • Shifting power. Citizen-driven initiatives need to apply nonviolent pressure through the “power of numbers.” By raising their collective voice to enumerate specific demands, initiatives that harness the power of numbers can put pressure on elites who, up to that point, have been unwilling to change the venal status quo.
    • Disruption. By hampering the smooth functioning of systems of graft and abuse, citizen-driven initiatives can make the status quo untenable.
    • Positive engagement and reinforcement vis-à-vis powerholders. Citizen-driven initiatives can “pull” powerholders toward their civic struggle by empowering those on the inside—honest elites, reformers, and integrity-championing institutions—through grassroots solidarity and social recognition (such as Accountability Lab’s Integrity Icon campaigns), which in turn contribute to shifting norms.
    • Connecting citizens’ grievances and problems. To win public support and mobilize people, it’s essential to link anti-corruption concepts and objectives to widespread frustrations and everyday concerns.
    • Incremental objectives and outcomes. Citizen-driven initiatives should map a path for transformative change based on clear objectives and specific demands that build on one another, yield visible outcomes, and foster a sense of citizen agency, inclusion, and dignity. In fragile and closed contexts, this often takes the form of locally led community initiatives, which can inspire others and feed into national efforts for major policy and legislative reforms. Jonathan Fox and Joy Aceron documented this process, naming it vertical integration.
  3. Three principles for success. The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s Peter Ackerman and Hardy Merriman have identified three core principles for success that are essential for sustained, effective social movements and campaigns: (1) unity of people, groups, grievances, and objectives; (2) strategic planning, organization, leadership, and context analysis; and (3) nonviolent discipline, defined by Merriman as “the ability of people to remain nonviolent, even in the face of provocations.”

    Breakdowns in nonviolent discipline can result in violent clashes with security forces and can give oppressors an excuse to crackdown and delegitimize civic initiatives. Consequently, this can dissolve broad-based citizen participation, thereby sapping a movement or campaign of its main source of power. For Louisa Ammi, an Algerian photojournalist who documented the Revolution of Smiles, “Algerians understood that the violence leads nowhere. The people at the top didn’t believe we could protest peacefully.”
  4. Repression and backfire. Vested interests benefitting from corruption are not happy when their private or collective gains are threatened by investigative journalists, movements, civil society organizations, and even elite integrity champions and institutions. They’ll counter with obstacles, intimidation, and violence. Nonviolent action scholar Brian Martin has developed the Backfire Model, a practical framework for activists to understand the tactics used by “perpetrators of injustice” and, importantly, nonviolent tactics to counter them.
  5. Beyond protest. Social movements, campaigns, and community-based civic initiatives cannot survive solely on protests. In many contexts, demonstrations are hard to control, especially in the face of repression. Demonstrations also run the risk of infiltration by violent groups and provocateurs planted by oppressors. Beyond protests, there are hundreds of nonviolent tactics to contextualize, and groups create new ones all the time.

    In the anti-corruption realm this includes: blacklisting “unfit” politicians during elections; and citizen-led or community-driven monitoring of budgets, spending, infrastructure, schools, clinics, courtrooms, and parliaments. In closed civic spaces, rather than put people in harm’s way, movements have devised many low-risk mass actions. Synchronized banging on pots and pans, switching off lights, and honking horns are common, as are the use of humor, art, culture, and digital resistance. And then there are wildly creative tactics, such as calling the population to a stay-away by writing on thousands of banknotes.
  6. Efficacy of nonviolent action. The overwhelming evidence is that nonviolent action is vastly superior to violent struggle. Research from my colleagues has found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as effective as violent campaigns; take about one-third as long as violent campaigns to end; are nine times more likely to lead to a democracy after five years; contribute to a higher level of democracy; are 45 percent less likely to elicit mass killing; and are six times more successful amid regime repression.

The protests of 2019 have shown the inspiring potential of nonviolent action. But to sustain positive people power into the next decade, we need to promote collective responsibility and empowerment, hope and dignity, and incremental victories—both small and large.

This article was originally published by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict.

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