Friday, February 25, 2011

Drivers of Social Revolution

The recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, starting off in Tunisia and still rippling across the region, makes for an interesting case study about the drivers for social revolution. Many of the countries that have experienced unrest did not undergo any sudden, major economic or political change. So what is it that sparked off the change and allowed it to be amplified in such a short period of time?

Over the last four months, I've taken a short sabbatical from my consulting assignments to do some volunteer work in Southern Africa. One of my personal goals was to leave a significant contribution, particularly in the areas of education and social development. My experience with life coaching and its application in a mass market context was most insightful. It allowed me a rare opportunity to understand what the really poor value, and what they are willing to endure.

The flip side of that understanding, is that it also provided me with some of the potential triggers that would bring on the need to do something more drastic - be it self-immolation in the case of Mohamed Bouazizi, or some other visible form of protest. And the protest need not be to make a blaring social statement - more often than not it is an unplanned act of desperation. The fact that it catches the attention of media and social networks is often just by the way.

Without diving in to the details of how the North African uprising started, the logic of social revolutions is as follows: there are repressed feelings about the powerlessness of individuals because of their circumstances. If these repressed feelings lead to a state of resignation - an acceptance that the status quo will never change and nothing that an individual can do will make an impact, then the anger of society is bottled up.

Now there are triggers to release this bottled up anger: an act of protest; acts of desperation or violence; organised mass action; or in the case of countries like South Africa - a strong leader like Nelson Mandela. The former triggers often used to be more hit and miss - there was no guarantee that the traditional media would pick up on an act and that it would be publicised enough to raise more than an empathetic conversation. With the rise of freer information flows through social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, however, public sentiment is more easily communicated. The use of these technologies is what gave voice to the public disgust in Tunisia.

If enough people find a common platform to channel their anger, and if they feel like there is hope that things may change - or there is sufficient pain for them to believe that there is no other option, then there is a revolution. What happened in Tunisia was exactly that - when Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself, the public was united with a common cause. They could directly relate to the tragic situation of the street vendor who had his wares confiscated and saw no means to continue to make an honest living - and they acted.

What happened since in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Djibouti, Jordan, and even Iran, Saudi Arabia and Libya was that the ousting of President Ben Ali in Tunisia gave hope that their resignation with their respective regimes might have been misplaced. The citizens of those countries too felt that taking proactive steps may improve their lot. Ultimately, it is that very HOPE that is the key driver to any social revolution.

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Be sure to check out the recent post on the North African revolutions on Wonkie, my favourite African news blog and the excellent BBC Paul Mason's democracy and economics article. If you're bored and would like something to do, check out these recommended pages.

As a brief aside I would also like to thank executive coach and friend, Pratish, whom I worked with as part of my volunteer project. For those of you who haven't experienced coaching and are keen to hire an executive coach, I highly recommend him!

Apologies for being out of touch with the blogging scene whilst I was volunteering - I guess readers should be used to that by now with me! I have some interesting articles lined up over the next few months including a guest cartoon strip on Wabber. For my friends in India, you may want to check out the new Play lottery in India page, given that the Powerball is now over $180M this week! :)

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