Research finds social movements can change the developing world

October 15, 2012

In the developing world, social movements led by urban, rural and often indigenous people who are opposed to projects they regard as inappropriate and exploitative can be very effective, according to recently released (Oct. 10) findings based on research led by Anthony Bebbington, Higgins Professor of Environment and Society and director of the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University.

The research, jointly supported by the United Kingdom's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department of International Development (DFID), suggests that in Peru and other developing nations, it is possible for social movements to drive real change, especially in new democracies.

Bebbington was lead researcher of the Social Movements and Poverty project, which studied movements in Peru, where democracy has been reasserted since 2000, and in South Africa where the right to vote has existed since 1994. The project involved extensive fieldwork with participants in social movements as well as people in government and the media. It ran from July 2007 to January 2010. Professor Bebbington, who was then at the University of Manchester (UK), led the work in Peru; colleague Professor Diana Mitlin led the South African research. Their research has been discussed at conferences and workshops in both countries and is the subject of a book published in Peru.

Bebbington points out that in both nations, social movements have succeeded in addressing issues of concern to poor people. In South Africa, many have focused on achieving affordable services such as water, electricity and sanitation. In Peru, there have been successful women's groups fighting for better nutritional standards.

"These movements have been very successful at putting issues on the national political agenda. They can operate as well in low-income areas of cities as in rural areas, and while they may make demands for rights, their approaches are often very realistic," Bebbington says. "Although they are sometimes ignored by the established national media, both of the countries we looked at have many alternative media, often online, with which social movements have close relations."

Social movements are not always on the political left. Both Peru and South Africa have movements that are socially and politically conservative, and in some cases have been linked to conservative movements within the Catholic Church. And popular social movements do not necessarily start with massive strategic ambitions. "They might begin with a specific mission like getting a city law passed that would make it easier to get credit for house-building, and then develop that into something bigger," Bebbington states.

The current economic crisis is making social movements more important, says Bebbington. "When you have total destitution, people are less able to start a movement to help themselves. But they are often formed during the early stage of an economic squeeze, as people notice their economic position worsening and their political rights coming under fire. After that, their success depends on whether they have enough resources to demand a response from government."

According to the findings, successful social movements demonstrate that conflict can lead to positive institutional change. "In Europe, developments such as the welfare state grew largely out of social conflict. Likewise, we are finding that social conflict in the developing world can also lead to progressive change," Bebbington adds. "In South Africa, we are seeing better provision of shelter in slums and shanty towns. Although activists are still being arrested in Peru, and people have once again died in recent conflicts there, we also see a new willingness to consult indigenous people and there have been changes in the way mining, oil and gas projects there are regulated."

In other cases studied, social movements do not use conflict but make positive proposals for improvements that are promoted through collective action, demonstrating new ways of addressing needs and challenging exclusion.

The ESRC is the United Kingdom's largest organization for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector.

The DFID is leading the British government's fight against world poverty, with a strong commitment to commissioning world class research that directly improves people's lives and is readily available to those who can use it around the world.

Founded in 1887 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Clark University is a small, liberal arts-based research university addressing social and human imperatives on a global scale. Nationally renowned as a college that changes lives, Clark is emerging as a transformative force in higher education today. LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice) is Clark's pioneering model of education that combines a robust liberal arts curriculum with life-changing world and workplace experiences. Clark's faculty and students work across boundaries to develop solutions to contemporary challenges in the areas of psychology, geography, management, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. The Clark educational experience embodies the University's motto: Challenge convention. Change our world.