World leaders risk anger, protests over inequality


Political leaders around the world could face growing citizen anger if they cannot re-engage with unhappy populations, a United Nations official said as heads of state grapple with protests.

Demonstrations in Latin America and elsewhere are connected to impatience with leaders who need to address the inequalities of the 21st century, said Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“Those who hold the power need to recognise that unless they respond to the particular sense of grief people feel, their legitimacy will be challenged,” Steiner said at the Bogota launch of the UNDP’s annual report on human development. “My hope is these protests are in many respects a wake-up call.”

As countries rush to develop, the frustration of those without access to higher education, the digital economy or services like broadband could fuel political tension, Steiner said.

The report shows the gap in basic living standards has narrowed countries with low development are struggling with a new generation of inequalities. The proportion of adults in highly developed countries entering tertiary education is growing six times faster than in low developed countries.

Broadband subscriptions grew 15 times faster in highly developed countries than in low developed ones, the report added. Climate change will contribute to inequality, as those with fewer resources struggle to protect themselves from extreme weather and natural disasters.

“It is no coincidence this is not a phenomenon of Colombia or of Latin America; it is happening worldwide,” Steiner said. “Political polarisation and sometimes the explosion of protest is happening across the world.”

Recent protests have rocked countries including Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia. Elsewhere, there have been mass demonstrations in Lebanon and Hong Kong.

In Colombia protesters organised a series of national strikes since late November. Led by trade unions and student organisations, protesters set out 13 demands to President Ivan Duque’s government, including scrapping plans to cut taxes on businesses.

“Protests are not born of the moment but are more breaking out into the streets based on long-term developments and trends,” Steiner said, adding protests were triggered by different issues in each country, they reflect a “underlying sense of concern, of frustration, a lack of fairness.”