Thus asks Lisa Mueller, a PhD student at UCLA, in a paper presented at a meeting of the Working Group in African Political Economy last year. She notes that theories of deprivation and protest clearly predict that the poor, who are worse off in absolute terms, should protest their living conditions more often. However, Africans on average protest no more than Latin Americans, who are approximately 5 times as wealthy.
As Mueller points out,”people rise up (1) because they want to and (2) because they can” (p. 4). Addressing the first part of this statement, theories of relative deprivation suggest that people might want to rise up when they feel that they are currently worse off than other groups in society. Similarly, theories of the prospect of upward mobility predict that people might protest when they feel that their standards of living will not rise in the future. Using Afrobatometer data, Mueller finds that Africans who are either absolutely or relatively deprived are no more likely to rise up than people who are not. (However, she does find that people whose standards of living have absolutely declined in recent years, rather than remaining stable at a low level, are somewhat more likely to protest.) She also reports that people who believe their prospect of upward mobility to be low are about 2% more likely to protest than those who believe their prospects are better.
One reason why more impoverished Africans do not protest may be the difficulty of organizing collective action in remote rural areas, where poverty tends to be worst. Mueller finds that people who have reported attending community meetings are approximately 3 times more likely to protest than those who have not – a much more substantive effect than found for either relative deprivation or upward mobility. However, she doesn’t address the probability of attending a community meeting conditional on urban or rural residency, so this doesn’t do much to tease out the predictors of protest in different locales. She does note that urban Africans are no more likely to protest than rural, but drops this interesting finding rather quickly with a comment about fear of police reprisals.
All in all, it’s a very interesting paper on a timely topic. However, I do question the conclusion she draws: “Africans seem to be refraining from protest because they anticipate changes in their living conditions” (p. 17). This sits a bit oddly with the fact that “65 percent of respondents in the most recent round of surveys said they believe that government economic policies have hurt most people and benefited only a few” (p. 18). A discussion of the role of government reprisal would slot in extremely neatly here.
That said, this also put me in mind of a recent post by one of IPA’s staffers in Uganda. He wrote of Museveni’s re-election that “there are too many people who lived through the terror and who are thus easily enough appeased by ‘peace and stability’ campaign platforms. Change, to the generation(s) that lived through the bad, is synonymous with ‘danger.'” The welfare improvements of stability might outweigh the problems of bad policy in some cases.