In a number of these cities, there have been deaths: At least 165 people were killed in the latest round of protests in the Iraqi capital, which resumed this week. Global protests are also causing unease among financial investors, adding to uncertainty about the health of the global economy.
And the reasons for them have been varied. Protests in Hong Kong, for example, were sparked by the local government saying it would allow extraditions to mainland China, while in Lebanon a proposed tax on calls on the messaging service WhatsApp prompted people to take to the streets.
But there are also startling similarities among some of the protests: themes of economic anger and political hopelessness.
Many protests were sparked by seemingly small economic factors
Lebanon isn’t the only country where a single, isolated change sparked protests.
Demonstrations began in Ecuador this month when the government scrapped decades-old fuel subsidies. (Notably, concern over fuel prices also fed the ongoing “yellow vest” protest movement in France.) In Chile, a hike in prices on the subway lead to violence this month, while the price of onions lead to protests in India shortly before.
In almost every case, protests soon turned into something far broader. Backtracking on the changes has stopped protests in some countries, but in many they continue: In Chile, protests continued last weekend even after the president canceled the planned fare increase.
Inequality is causing pain
Income inequality seems to have added an economic insecurity that helped lead to anger and protests.
Lebanon, where the WhatsApp tax caused huge protests, is one of the world’s most unequal economies, with the richest 1 percent claiming 25 percent of the total national income between 2005 and 2014.
Chile, in many ways a more stable and prosperous country than many of its neighbors, has the highest level of post-tax income inequality among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, some of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Skewed demographics also make things worse. In Iraq, anger grows among a whole generation that seems to have poor economic prospects. According to data compiled by the World Bank last year, it’s estimated that unemployment is 36 percent among Iraqis who are 15 to 24 years old.
“They stole our futures, and now they’re killing us,” one young man said at a protest in Baghdad early this month.
Deep economic problems plague governments
Income inequality is hardly the only economic factor that many of the countries seeing protests are facing. In particular, slowing economic growth and increasing government debt are pushing policymaking to the brink and leading to fears about the future.
Last week, the International Monetary Fund warned that global economic growth would be 3 percent this year, rather than the 3.2. percent it had predicted in July. If accurate, that will be the slowest growth rate since the previous financial crisis.
That effect is pronounced in some Latin America, where the IMF predicts 0.2 percent growth overall, with major economies like Brazil and Mexico growing at less than 1 percent. Only a few years ago, high commodities prices helped lead to a boom in countries like Ecuador, which produces oil, that are now seeing protests.
Many nations borrowed big in the boom times only to find themselves now facing calls from creditors. Lebanon is a particularly extreme situation, where a debt to gross domestic product ratio of 155 percent makes it the third-most-indebted country in the world.
Little faith in government response
Crucially, for many protesters, the issue isn’t just government policies: It’s the government.
One factor in the anger in Lebanon has been the reports that Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave $16 million to a South African model with whom he was romantically involved. Protests in Haiti partially stem from allegations that President Jovenel Moïse’s government stole billions of dollars meant for social development projects
In Barcelona and Hong Kong, anger over government legitimacy goes far beyond corruption. Hong Kong protesters no longer believe that their government is able to stand up to Beijing; in Barcelona, last week’s protests were prompted by the sentencing of Catalan separatist leaders.
These broader questions of legitimacy help explain why so many protests don’t end when the initial problem that led demonstrators to the streets has been reversed. Hong Kong suspended the plans for a new extradition law in September; similar policy reversals have yet to stop protests in Lebanon, Ecuador or Chile.
So far, this broad range of protests hasn’t brought down a government, though in some places they are coming close. The costs, not only in economic loss but also in blood, could still rise exponentially.