Growing Pains in Emerging States: What to Make of Mass Demonstrations in Turkey and Brazil?

For nine years, I've visited the same Turkish tailor in Washington, D.C. We've developed a comfortable rapport that spans work (too much of it), weekend activities (not enough time), relationships (when's the wedding?), and the weather. Last week, while getting a suit resized, our conversation veered in an unexpected direction. After perfunctory greetings, he asked me if I was aware of the recent protests in Turkey. Sure, I was following them closely -- in fact, last summer I had visited Taksim Square, the epicenter of the protests, exploring the shops and narrow side streets of Beyoglu.

What did I think, he asked? I responded that it seemed like Prime Minister Erdogan had seriously miscalculated, letting heavy-handed tactics get the better of him. Still, there seemed to be time for a face-saving deal out of the situation.

Erdogan cares nothing for the Turkish people or for democracy, he declared. He is running Turkey into the ground, betraying the ideals of Ataturk. He thinks he can make Turkey into whatever he'd like it to be -- the arrogance!

In a few phrases, my tailor bluntly captured the potent undercurrent of uncertainty, frustration, and volatility that too often continues to characterize Turkey and other emerging, rising or "swing" states (such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa). While unrest continues in Turkey, new demonstrations exceeding one million are sweeping Brazil. This moment compels us to reassess existing assumptions about the relative strength and ascendance of emerging nations, most of which face fundamental demographic, socio-historical, political and economic challenges. The progression to becoming economically prosperous, stable, and democratic is not inevitable nor will it happen on a smooth trajectory. To better understand the fuller story, it is useful to consider three interrelated trends.

First, we are in the midst of an undeniable boom in the middle class across the world, especially in emerging states. This is an undeniably positive development -- it is powering the global economy, lending increased purchasing power to a new class of people, putting massive dents in previously intractable poverty rates, allowing for the proliferation of communications and technology, and overall leading to significantly increased quality of life. But the rapid rise of the middle class has also come at a price -- it is causing significant societal upheaval as it dramatically reorganizes existing social and political structures, with new actors demanding greater political access, participation and power, often at the expense of existing elites. As societies struggle to find a new equilibrium, political tumult and mass demonstrations, with attendant market spillover effects, are often the result. The paradox is that the same middle class citizens who have benefited the most in the last decade from market reforms and robust economic growth, are now the very ones threatening to derail future prosperity and stability as they seek appropriate political accommodation.

Second, the quality of political institutions and governance matter greatly. Many emerging countries are grappling with severe corruption issues, inefficient government ministries, and a persistent perception that they are incapable of providing their citizens with acceptable, basic services. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue in Why Nations Fail, whether a country has weak or "extractive" political institutions is often determinative as to whether it will continue to sustainably grow and develop, or fall at risk to stagnation and turmoil. These problems are now playing themselves out in the street - corruption, graft and incompetence, compounded by increasing tax rates, have been frequently cited by demonstrators in Brazil and Turkey as driving reasons behind the protests.

Third, urbanization makes things complicated. What emerging states also have in common is a historic rural-urban migration that is not only leading to massive new urban areas with attendant benefits (economies of scale, creative cohesion) but massive social challenges (social fragmentation, straining infrastructure, mismatch of jobs to skills). In many respects, urbanization is a proxy for broader economic and political transformations radically reordering countries in the developing world. The fastest growing cities in the world are spread across China, Indonesia, Brazil and India -- seven out of 10 urban residents worldwide are already found in developing countries, with 183,000 people being added to cities in developing countries each day. A natural outgrowth of this displacement is political disenfranchisement, resistance to the status quo, and a search for change. It is no accident that many of the iconic moments from the current global upheaval are found in heavily urban locations, like Istanbul, Brasilia, and Sao Paolo.

This is not to say that emerging powers will suddenly experience a reversal of their spectacular growth and rising influence, undone by weak institutions, rapid urbanization and exacerbated tensions between old power elites and the rising middle class. On the contrary, these demonstrations can be viewed as necessary growing pains that are forcing emerging countries to honestly confront the implications of mass social change and transition. If the protests spark the right conversations and reflections -- whether between a tailor and his customer, or citizens with their government -- then they may lead to necessary political and institutional reforms. As laid out USAID's new Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, participation, inclusion and accountability are core tenets that will hasten countries' transformations to becoming stable, prosperous and mature linchpins of the global system. But in the meantime, we would be wise to temper our expectations and recognize that the unfolding narrative of emerging states is more complicated, less predictable, and more fluctuating than we have realized.