Protests and Progress

Turkey protests in pictures

While protestors in Istanbul build barricades from paving stones and the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Demonstration passes, the UN is beginning discussions to update the Millenium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. Delegations to the UN lack the media attention of the battered Turks, but their work may be just as significant–there is a key connection between the development goals and the protests that have swept the globe in the past few years. The Millenium Development Goals have succeeded, and protesters struggling through teargas is the smoking gun of modernization.


Established in 2000, the Millenium Development Goals are eight sets of goals designed to combat global poverty through economic development, accessible health care, primary education for boys and girls, and partnerships for global development. While many of the goals remain unfulfilled, especially health-related benchmarks, the number of people living below the global poverty line of $1.25 a day has dramatically decreased. Many are praising free markets and liberalism for the rise of the developing countries, including states where economic prosperity has preceded political liberalism. Asia saw the most significant improvement between 1990 and 2015, responsible for bringing nearly 650 million people out of poverty through its meteoric economic rise.


As developing states rise out of poverty and develop a middle class, the political structure begins to change. According to Richard Inglehart and Christian Welzel in the article “What We Know about Modernization: How Development Leads to Democracy,” published in Foreign Affairs in 2009, economic development leads to modernization, which is the socialization of advanced political systems. Inglehart and Welzel write, “Modernization makes people more economically secure, and self-expression values become more increasingly widespread when a large share of the population grows up taking survival for granted.” Nothing says self-expression like a good protest–the Turkish protesters are reacting against increasingly traditional government policies instead of secular.


Do protests in Turkey indicate that economic success has led to a socialization of democratic principles? Turkey’s secular system and economic success seemed to make Turkey a model state for developing countries, yet under Prime Minister Erdogan, the AK party has become increasingly authoritarian. Islamist policies have alienated the secular parties, leading to the clash over this past weekend. Prime Minister Erdogan was democratically elected, and remained one of the most popular leaders in the region. What remains to be seen is how he will respond to the protests. If he continues to be antagonistic toward secularization, things could get interesting.


If Turkey’s success has led to its turmoil, that leads us to the question of the next set of development goals. Will continued economic development, focusing on Africa especially, lead to a new wave of protest movements? What about states where we see economic development but have yet to see political change, such as China? As the UN seeks to push poverty farther into the corners, we may see a rise of political unrest. If these movements are growing pains, they may actually be an encouraging sign of modernization.

by Ian Graham, World Affairs Council Intern