Skip to main content



commentary Commentary

Commentary: 2019 was a year of global unrest and rising inequality. 2020 is likely to be worse

The era following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was a triumph for multilateralism, but it also sowed many of the seeds for today’s discontent, says an observer.

Commentary: 2019 was a year of global unrest and rising inequality. 2020 is likely to be worse

Decades of pent-up frustration have poured out as Chileans protest against social and economic inequality. (Photo: AFP/Martin Bernetti)

MELBOURNE: 2019 may well go down as the most disrupted year in global politics since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the former Soviet Union.

However, the likelihood is that 2020 will be worse, and bloodier.

Conditions that spawned global unrest on every continent in 2019 are unlikely to recede. Rather, they are likely to worsen in the face of a slowing global economy and little sign of causes of disaffection being addressed.


In a word, the world is in a mess, made more threatening by the retreat of the Trump administration from America’s traditional role as a stabilising force.

If anything, Washington is a disruptor in its abandonment of international agreements. These include: The Paris Agreement on climate change and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, previously the Trans-Pacific Partnership, aimed at liberalising Asia-Pacific trade.

LISTEN: Heart of the Matter podcast: Talking about the Madrid climate talks, what happened and what’s next?

The US has also withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that froze Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Washington’s defenestration of the JCPOA and its reimposition of tough sanctions on Iran has further destabilised the world’s most volatile region.

US President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement, May 8, 2018.(File photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst) U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement after signing it in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Files

All this and more, including an unresolved trade conflict between the US and China, virtually guarantees 2020 will stretch the sinews of a fragile global order.

An evolving US-China technology war and risks of a technological decoupling add to the gloom.


The financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 was a period of intense uncertainty as the global financial system buckled. But, for the most part, that distress was confined to governments, boardrooms and the offices of international lending institutions.

The crisis did not fuel widespread global unrest as a shell-shocked financial world came to terms with the reality of a regulatory framework that had failed.

READ: Commentary: Singapore trade, disrupted, (not) business as usual

In 2019, the story has shifted dramatically.

Mass protests over the skewed benefits of globalisation accompanied by faltering confidence in a democratic model are challenging the assumptions on which the Western liberal capitalist system rests.

Local grievances are fuelling protests against an established order in places as far apart as La Paz in Bolivia and Beirut in Lebanon. Endemic corruption is looming larger.

Protesters react amidst a cloud of smoke during anti government protests in Beirut, Lebanon December 15, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

If there is a defining issue that is driving popular unrest more or less across the board, it is that people do not feel they are sharing the benefits of an extended period of global economic expansion.

In January, Oxfam reported that the world’s 26 richest individuals owned as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population.

Commentary: Want to fight inequality? How about paying higher taxes first?

Billionaires grew their combined fortunes by US$2.5 billion a day in 2018, while the relative wealth of the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people declined by US$500 million a day.

A rich-poor gap is widening across the world to the point where it is no longer possible to argue that an economic growth model that benefits the few is lifting all boats.


Something has to give.

Professor Henry Carey of Georgia State University acknowledges differences in causes of localised unrest now sweeping the world, but he also identifies shared characteristics. These include rising inequality, corruption, slow economic growth, and the lack of democratic rule of law.

Carey makes the useful point that, as the world becomes more urbanised, overcrowded cities are staging points in a global wave of unrest.

Burning debris is seen during a protest against Chile's government in Santiago, Chile October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

In 1950, there were only two mega-cities with populations of 10 million or more – the New York metropolitan area and Tokyo. Today, there are 25 such megacities.

Of a world population of 7.7 billion people, 4.2 billion, or 55 per cent, live in cities and other urban settlements. Another 2.5 billion will move into cities in poor countries by 2050, according to the United Nations.

In other words, poverty, gang crime, drug trafficking and all the other ills associated with an impoverished urban environment will become less manageable as overcrowding gets worse in cities, parts of which have become urban slums.

READ: Commentary: Managing shrinking cities in an expanding world

In these circumstances, it is no accident that Latin America, with the world’s slowest economic growth and most glaring inequality, has exploded in the longest-lasting violent protests.

In Chile, where economic grievances boiled over into days of mass protests, an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit was abandoned because of security concerns.

In Bolivia, the long-serving populist president, Evo Morales, was forced out of office and the country by days of urban unrest.

READ: Commentary: Lessons on how not to tackle inequality, a tale of China and India

Similar stories can be seen across the Middle East and Africa.

In Lebanon, riven by protests for months, Prime Minister Saad Hariri was forced to step down amid growing anger about rising living costs, lack of job opportunities, stagnant wages and corruption.

South Africa is struggling to cope with huge economic challenges posed by an influx of refugees and a vast underclass camped in townships on the fringes of its major cities.

Protesters wearing yellow vests demonstrate during their 56th round of protests with a backdrop of social discontentment triggered by president Macron's pensions reform plan in Paris, France, Dec 7, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)

Elsewhere in Europe, unrest is barely contained. In France, mass protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to address the country’s economic malaise show little sign of easing.

And in Asia, Hong Kong's proposed extradition law that would have facilitated the removal of those accused of crimes or misdemeanours to the mainland might have prompted mass protests. But at the heart of the demonstrations are economic grievances. Hong Kong’s wealth disparities are obscene.


Across the globe, unrest over climate change is a common denominator and is likely to become more – not less – challenging to governments.

In Australia, in the midst of what may well prove to be the worst bushfires since white settlement, agitation over climate is exerting enormous pressure on the government of the day.

Whether this is fair or not, the government is perceived to be indifferent to climate concerns.

READ: Commentary: We call it climate change. It's more like a global health crisis

In a study of protest movements, the Brookings Institution found multilateralism flourished, global GDP rose and the percentage of people living in absolute poverty declined steadily after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Paradoxically, this was an era that also sowed the seeds of present challenges. Advances in technology and globalisation, spurred by lower trade barriers, boosted global GDP but also led to the dislocation of middle-class livelihoods in many Western societies.

This is not helped by an administration in Washington that has retreated at a time of global unrest in which stable Western leadership has hardly been more necessary.

Tony Walker is Adjunct Professor at the School of Communications, La Trobe University. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/el(sl)


Also worth reading