In the past two months, protests and demonstrations have caused the overthrow of the Burkina Faso Government and forced the Prime Minister of Haiti to resign his post. Events like these are becoming commonplace as individuals, communities, and societies now have the ability to collectively demand change with a global audience at their fingertips. In the past, populations did not have a voice or the ability to organize on a grand scale or at the national level. They relied on their locally elected officials to represent their grievances with the national government.
National governments have not evolved to meet the demands of this new social dynamic that can garner near-instant national and international attention. Moreover, national governments often times do not understand the root causes of their societies’ grievances and are ineffective or unresponsive in dealing with them. In these cases, populations have found a viable alternative to create change via the modern, global stage.
Protests, demonstrations, and strikes are mechanisms for societies to air grievances when traditional alternatives fail or are unavailable. What has changed in recent years is an ability to rapidly mobilize various communities across multiple boundaries, real and imagined, to instigate attention for a cause. Examples are found each day around the world. In Mexico, communities mobilized against the local and national government in response to 43 missing students. In Nicaragua, citizens are currently protesting the proposed construction of a canal across the country. In Italy, youth protests and union strikes over austerity forced closures of civil services. In Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, Shi’a youth protest over social inequality and lack of representation within the government. In Hong Kong, months of mass demonstrations were initiated over proposed electoral reform. Developed and relatively inclusive societies, such as the United States, are not immune to these activities. For example, in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City the use of excessive force—real or perceived—in the deaths of two individuals caused protests and violence.
Although the majority of social unrest will not result in the overthrow of governments, especially in modern, developed nations, this phenomenon will not go away. Current trends project an increase in severity and occurrence as individuals leverage social media and communications technology to mobilize around a particular belief or cause. The ability for individuals and small groups to have such a tremendous impact on governments and companies is unprecedented. It is one of the biggest changes of the technology age, and allows people at all income levels to create, distribute, and absorb content.
This is not only bad for governments and authorities in existing power structures, it also impacts future corporate investment decisions, insurance premiums, and production and distribution of goods for businesses that operate where social tensions exist. Businesses tend to experience higher levels of social unrest from individuals and communities due to their proximity and relationship. Fortunately there is a solution to identify and prevent social conflict. The key is to understand and attack the root cause of the problem before it manifests into civil disobedience or social unrest, and to understand the problem from the point of view of those who express their discontent.
The majority of problems that manifest into open conflict are preventable, or at least can be mitigated, but only if understood from the outset. In Ferguson, though “race” was a factor, the main impetus for the protests and riots concerned lack of local economic opportunity and high unemployment. Current civil unrest in Mexico is about endemic corruption and the lack of a competent local police force. Nicaragua is about land rights and resettlement issues, not a canal which on its face would seem to provide economic incentive for all portions of Nicaraguan society. By first understanding the root cause of unrest or underlying social discord, companies, governments and organizations can appropriately address the problem and mitigate negative consequences that may result. Otherwise, organizations, companies, and governments will find themselves entangled in social conflicts.