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A calm look at social unrest

In a globalised world, social unrest occurring far away can have transnational ramifications, with effects nearer to home. This has been evident in recent years with movements such as Occupy and Indignados, and the Arab Spring. Unrest could also be the consequence of a terrorist attack, but even the threat of one can lead to widespread panic. The upshot can be disorder and economic turmoil.

The OECD Review of Risk Management Policies: Social Unrest is one of a series presented by the OECD project on Future Global Shocks. The report asks how social unrest evolves in a globalised setting, and if it differs from past experiences. Will social unrest manifest in the cyber world? How will social unrest affect global interdependencies? By developing an analytical framework of social unrest, the report seeks to provide feasible policy options to help governments address social unrest itself, and manage its possible consequences. In working within the paradigm that social unrest is more of a process of escalation than a finite state, the report identifies the drivers, or casual roots, and triggers–events that lead to social unrest–in four case studies: the 2010 Greek financial crisis, the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, cyber-related risks and Hurricane Katrina.

Take the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in which poor planning, widespread panic and uneven response led to chaos and tragedy in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. While the category three storm was not the strongest the region ever experienced, the escalation of events during and following Katrina turned it into the most destructive. Media coverage focused on the crimes that arose. Nevertheless, most of the blame was placed on the public authorities for their failure to secure law and order and address the problems in a more even-handed way. Katrina highlights the many factors that need to be taken into account when evaluating the risks of social unrest and underlines the difficulties in addressing them properly. By approaching unrest within a framework of risks and potential consequences, societies could be better equipped to handle the eventualities of social unrest, the report suggests.

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ISBN 9789264173453

©OECD Observer No 293, Q4 2012