The news in 2019 was dominated by protests and civil unrest around the world, from peaceful climate marches and school strikes, to violent riots and revolutions. Citizens of all ages, races, faiths and genders demonstrated across the globe, from London to Lebanon and India to Iran. While protests were frequently a result of long-term frustrations with governments and the economy, they were often triggered by something seemingly less significant, such as an increase in taxes or fuel prices, or a change in legislation.
ECA’s Location Ratings team monitored this extraordinary year of protest closely and the effects on international assignees were reflected in the updated location ratings scores and location allowance recommendations we published in November.
The impact of political unrest and protests on assignees
One location that rarely left the headlines during the latter half of 2019 was Hong Kong. Protests that originally began in response to a controversial proposed extradition bill in June, evolved to include general opposition to Chinese influence, and to demand justice in response to police brutality and the government’s handling of the unrest. Underlying tensions have been evident in Hong Kong since pro-democracy protests in 2014, and as a result the socio-political tensions aspect of Hong Kong’s location ratings score was already at an elevated level. However, the protests of 2019 were a significant escalation and the socio-political tensions score has risen even further in response to the continuing instability.
The unprecedented level of unrest in Hong Kong has also resulted in knock-on disruptions to the daily life of all residents, including international assignees, and consequently other aspects of Hong Kong’s location ratings score have increased too. For example, repeated early closures of subway stations and roadblocks have resulted in an increase to the internal isolation element of our scoring that assesses the quality and reliability of public transport. Despite these score increases, not all assignees will see a change to their location allowance. Our unique scoring methodology compares circumstances in both the home and host locations, so whether the higher score has led to an increase in the corresponding location allowance will depend on the assignee’s home location. Our Asia Regional Director, Lee Quane, explains more about Hong Kong’s location ratings score in his recent November blog post.
Another location that saw an increase in its socio-political tensions score was Chile. Protests last year began in response to a hike in subway fares, but quickly descended into violence as crowds in Santiago aired their grievances regarding the increased cost of living, privatisations, and pervasive inequality. More than 27 deaths resulted, and a state of emergency was called in multiple regions. Since then, protesters have demanded the resignation of the president, and a national referendum on the creation of a new constitution is scheduled for April 2020. In light of the violent nature of the protests, the response to which the UN says has violated human rights, ECA has increased the element of the socio-political tensions scoring that reflects levels of political violence. The aspect of scoring that considers restrictions on movement also increased due to the impact of curfews put in place in October, and the potential for them to be reintroduced if violent confrontations with armed forces and the police reoccur. We saw a similar score increase in neighbouring Bolivia, where controversy surrounding the 2019 general election culminated in protests that led to the exile of President Evo Morales, bringing his 14 years in power to an end.
However, we did also see more positive changes in some locations. Last year Thailand held its first democratic elections since a 2014 military coup, resulting in a change to the governance aspect of our culture score. This score varies depending on the home location used, so some assignees in Thailand may see a reduced location allowance as a result of this change while others may not.
The emerging role of technology
Where previously protest movements may have been organised by individual leaders or have published manifestos, today many are leaderless, and often without a unified set of demands. The leaderless nature of today’s protests means that organisation is now handled digitally among multiple individuals. WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter all allow communication between protesters, Apple’s AirDrop function enables them to update live maps showing police presence, and crowdfunding campaigns have raised millions around the world to support individual protesters with legal fees and medical bills.
Further, protests are now almost always documented using smartphones. This was shown most memorably in Sudan in June, when street protests in Khartoum turned into a massacre. While TV news reporters could not get close enough to record, individuals were able to livestream the chaos for the world to see.
In the last year, governments have continued to curb internet freedoms to try to limit the ability of protesters to coordinate via social media or broadcast their protests internationally. In November, protests across Iran turned deadly, with up to an estimated 450 killed in the violence, but the details only became apparent after a week-long internet block was lifted. Likewise, in December internet access was shut down in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Assam and even Delhi in India, in an attempt to restrict protests and push through controversial citizenship legislation. This is in addition to the ongoing internet blackout in disputed Kashmir, now the longest internet shutdown ever imposed in a democratic country.
The effectiveness of this kind of response in suppressing unrest is doubtful, but it certainly disrupts the everyday lives of those living in these regions, including assignees who may rely on the internet to keep in contact with loved ones abroad. Where governments have shown an increasing tendency to censor the internet, ECA’s score for censorship and news and media access has also increased.
Where unrest did not lead to score increases
Long-term protests continued in many other locations around the globe in 2019, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that assignees living there will see an increase to their location allowance. In Lebanon, for example, a nation already in the throes of economic crisis, citizens took to the streets to oppose a proposed tax on WhatsApp voice calls. This quickly morphed into a protest against long-standing inequalities and corruption, and the failure of the government to remedy the country’s ongoing financial crisis. While the situation has certainly intensified in recent months, ECA’s existing scoring for Beirut already accounted for the ongoing instability in Lebanon, as well as for the potential for it to get worse. As such, assignees there may not see a change to their location allowance.
While some protest movements can last months or even years, others are short-lived, so even if they have been disruptive they may not warrant a change in a location’s score. While it can be tempting to placate worried assignees with an increased location allowance following a high-profile event, if there turns out to be no long-term impact on them it may be challenging to change the allowance back again when the unrest subsides, especially if assignees do not perceive the situation as having improved. It is much more appropriate to wait and see if a location is experiencing long-term challenges that are affecting assignees’ quality of life.
In France, for example, the scoring for socio-political tensions takes into account disruption caused by groups such as the gilet jaunes, who have held regular protests across the country over the last two years, so those expecting an increased location allowance may not see one despite recent high-profile and sometimes violent protests. And while protests can dominate local news, they don’t necessarily have a direct effect on international assignees. For example, the Extinction Rebellion climate change protests that occurred throughout 2019 in London, despite their scale, did not affect everyday life severely enough to warrant a score change for assignees living there.
Another instance in which increased civil unrest may not lead to a higher location allowance is where the security situation is so severe that the personal security and socio-political tensions scores are already at their maximum. This was sadly the case for Baghdad this year, where no further increases to the score were possible despite a rapidly declining situation where several months of protests resulted in more than 500 deaths.
What can we expect from 2020?
Climate change continues to be a source of massive concern globally, and year on year its effects become more obvious. In 2019 drought continued across southern Africa, prompting Namibia to declare its drought the worst in 90 years. Meanwhile flooding occurred in Mumbai, Karachi, Beirut and elsewhere, resulting in score increases in cities where assignees were affected. At the time of writing, bushfires had ravaged more than 18 million hectares and 6500 buildings in Australia. As experts warn that we are nearing a permanent tipping point, increasing awareness of the issue means that more climate protests can be expected as more people hold governments and corporations to account.
In terms of civil unrest, it looks like 2020 will continue to be eventful. A New Year’s Day rally in Hong Kong drew tens of thousands of protesters, chanting “five demands, not one less”, indicating protests are unlikely to stop until all of their demands are met. And in Venezuela, the self-declared alternative president, Juan Guaido, was sworn in for a second term as National Assembly speaker in dramatic scenes that foreshadow another year of political turbulence as the ‘official’ president, Nicolas Maduro, clings on to power. Tensions between the US and Iran have also rapidly escalated since the US assassination of Iran’s military leader Qassem Suleimani in December.
When individuals join together to protest, real change can happen. 2019 saw the ousting of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir in a military coup following a thirty-year dictatorship beset by civil conflict, and the resignation of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who, despite being 82 years old and in ailing health, was planning to run for a fifth term. While the success of these protest movements was both shocking and inspiring, the continuing instability seen in countries involved in the Arab Spring at the start of the last decade suggest it would be wise to expect Sudan and Algeria to remain unstable in the coming years too.
Most recently, we’re now also seeing worrying news about a potential global health crisis – the coronavirus outbreak is causing panic in China and beginning to spread abroad.
With elections planned in many countries for 2020 it’s likely we’ll be seeing new protest movements and further political turmoil in the year ahead. But whatever happens, ECA will continue to monitor events and adjust location ratings scores appropriately.
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