A recent Economist article (‘Unrest in Peace’, 22 October 2011) explores the reasons behind recent wide-scale protest movements in Western countries, citing research that links the rise in social instability with austerity measures and increasing inequality. The author relates this outcome to events long witnessed in the emerging world, citing MICROCON research on India as a case in point. Indeed, given the current economic and social climate, our findings on the relative importance of redistributive policies for reducing civil unrest have important implications.
Governments typically intervene in the mediation and resolution of forms of civil unrest with a mix of carrot-and-stick approaches. Our empirical analysis, based on data for a panel of fourteen major Indian states, found that while using coercive means to quell unrest may be effective in the short term, in the long term it can cause discontent amongst disadvantaged or disenfranchised populations, leading to greater conflict.
Compared to the use of police, redistributive transfers appear to have a more significant impact on the reduction of unrest across states. By redistributive transfers we refer to transfers that benefit those in need without necessarily distorting private investment decisions and harming economic growth. These might include programmes of public employment, investment in basic education and primary health care, food security programmes and so on.
The econometric modelling took into account other factors that have been shown to contribute to the onset of conflict, including the extent of poverty in states and across groups; the level of overall state income; and the level of education in each state. It found that the correlation between redistributive transfers and civil unrest is almost always negative and statistically significant: higher levels of redistributive transfers are associated with decreases in civil unrest. This effect is particularly significant in the long-term: the number of riots decrease by 0.3-0.4% for each extra rupee per capita spent on social services in the same period, but decrease by 10.5-12.1% for every extra rupee per capita spent on social services in preceding period. Policing is also found to decrease civil unrest in the same period that it is used; however, the use of policing tends to increase civil unrest in subsequent periods.
Results suggest that the level of redistributive transfers across India has been sufficient to avoid the escalation of civil unrest. Whether intentional or not, and despite the small amounts spent, transfers have had a significant impact on the prevention and reduction of civil unrest in India, particularly in the medium term. The results of this analysis yield important lessons for other countries where social cohesion tends to break frequently but large-scale conflict may be avoidable.
In many developing and emerging countries that are neither high-functioning democracies nor efficient dictatorship regimes, the only way avoid conflict in the long term may be to reduce inequality. Some countries in Latin America, such as Brazil, Mexico and Peru have, over the years, exhibited a combination of high income inequalities (much higher than India’s) and high potential for socio-political conflict, while other countries have shown signs of deterioration of relatively successful social development policies (for instance, former Soviet Union republics, Egypt and Libya). This can result in increases in civil unrest. Instead of addressing the reasons that motivate population mobilisation, the use of police and military force does little more than enhance the causes of unrest rooted in perceived social injustice. In addition, the continued use of coercive force by security forces may cause resentment and further mobilisation that can increase the risk of the escalation of unrest.
The implementation of adequate programmes of redistributive transfers may have an important role to play in the establishment and/or maintenance of stable socio-political environments in those countries. Given recent events in established democracies it appears that in Western countries too, what governments need are more policies that directly address the root causes of social discontent.