Global Risk Themes 2020, #4: Destabilising civil unrest

Mass protests triggered the fall of long-standing, heavily securitised regimes in Algeria and Sudan during 2019, caused prime ministers to resign in Iraq and Lebanon and led the president of Bolivia to flee the country following a disputed election result. 

There is ongoing violent disorder in Venezuela, Haiti and Hong Kong and 2019 has seen a succession of mass strikes and associated unrest in Zimbabwe. Government attempts to reduce petrol subsidies triggered a wave of violent unrest in Iran towards the end of the year. The frequency of anti-government protests with violence at the fringes also increased in Egypt, Turkey and Russia.

High rates of inflation were a significant factor in several of these situations, with Venezuela and Zimbabwe having the highest inflation rates in the world in 2019, whilst Iran, Sudan and Haiti were all in the global top ten. Turkey and Egypt, sitting just outside the top ten, also had inflation rates more than four times the global average. 

Inflation is particularly socially inflammatory where it overlaps with a combination of high unemployment and deteriorating political freedoms. Large countries that currently combine all these factors, and which face a rising domestic unrest risk heading into 2020, include Egypt, Turkey and Nigeria. Venezuela and Iran will meanwhile remain highly volatile.  

Fiscal reforms and targeted price increases were additional factors influencing patterns of unrest during 2019. Examples include Lebanon (where protests were triggered by government attempts to introduce a tax on social media calls) and Chile (where an increase in public transport fares triggered violent unrest leading to a state of emergency being declared in the capital Santiago).  Attempts by long-established governments to manipulate electoral processes have also been a trigger, notably in Algeria and Bolivia. 

In Pakistan there was a series of large anti-government protests following announcement of the Khan government’s first budget, which included austerity measures tied to an IMF bailout. Pakistan will remain a key country to watch for potential spikes in unrest in 2020, as the austerity measures outlined in 2019 start to kick in along with a mounting anti-government protest movement led by the right-wing political opposition. Nigeria is another, given an inflation rate above 11 per cent, unemployment of 23 per cent and an unsustainable budget deficit. This may force the government to revisit cuts in fuel subsidisation which, as in Iran, have triggered spikes in violent unrest when introduced in the past. 

Argentina’s new government will probably have a period of grace off the back of its election victory in October 2019. However, it will remain among the most economically and therefore socially volatile countries in the G20, with the fourth highest inflation rate in the world in 2019, unemployment around 10 per cent and the government under pressure from international lenders to maintain austerity policies. 

Sibylline Annual Forecast 2020: Global Themes

This post is part of a series of eight global themes to watch in 2020. These form part of our annual forecast product, released to clients in December and including regional deep dives on the Americas, Europe, MENA, Africa, Eurasia and Asia Pacific in addition to an overview of key events and flashpoints in the year ahead. Please contact us if you are interested in receiving this product or finding out more about the World Risk Register.