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Uncertainty and Researching Protest Participation

16 August 2011

This was written on August 4, 2011, but was delayed in posting out of my paranoia that the research project — if widely known in Malawi — would be shut down.

Civil society leaders have given Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika until August 16th to respond to concerns outlined in a petition submitted during the July 20th demonstrations. The expectation is that a lack of response by the president will be met with Malawians again taking to the streets on August 17th.

As a social scientist, the opportunity to study protest participation during a protest is incredible, especially during a period when political unrest on the African continent appears to be on the rise. Research on protests that draws respondents from protest locations is conducted largely in industrialized democracies. Protest participation research in Africa is rather limited, and relies on newspaper accounts or respondents’ self-reports of protest participation in the recent past or reported willingness to engage in political violence.

The lack of research on protest in Africa that draws data from protest locations should not be surprising given the challenges inherent in collecting such data.

It is usually difficult to know in advance that a protest will occur — or at least, to know with sufficient time to plan data collection. The research has to be designed, cleared to include human subjects, funded, and then the logistics mapped out: hiring and training enumerators, securing transportation, learning details of the protest plan, and matching the research plan accordingly.

The planning is a significant investment, especially considering the great possibility that the protests might not occur. The president could decide to address the concerns noted in the civil society petition — nullifying the call for Malawians to take to the streets. And, just like what happened with the July 20th protests, there could be legal injunctions issued barring protests from occurring, perhaps even making it illegal to be at protest locations (regardless of whether one is protesting). Thus, to plan to research protesters involves some investment risk.

Of course, the most obvious concern is safety. Especially given the way the July 20th protests ended (in violence, resulting in 19 deaths), merely being at the protest puts enumerators in harm’s way. Though statements by the President and the police contend injuries were only sustained by violent protesters or looters, and that no live ammunition was used, various reports from different protest locations contend that police shot with live rounds of ammunition and that teargas was used as a deterrent to peaceful protest.

In a phone conversation with a good friend and local colleague with whom I expected to conduct the research, he shared some insights on other potential concerns. He was particularly concerned that enumerator safety was also endangered by the protesters themselves. He noted that not everyone who shows up to the protest is there to voice concerns about the government, but that there are also unsavory characters looking to take advantage of the situation. These attendees could cause harm to those at the protest, or more likely, give cause to police or security forces to engage in violence against the protest crowd (in which enumerators are included). Relatedly, protesters could question who sent the enumerators, and could even suspect enumerators were sent by the government.

His further concern was that with the organization taking on the research project, they risk losing future contracts with government agencies. Being associated with “politics” was something he (and other decision makers in the organization) didn’t want — especially politics on the wrong side of the government. It’s important to note that the decision makers are sufficiently old enough to have had memory of life during Banda’s dictatorship.

We’ve managed to find an alternative organization to carry out the study, and the decisionmaker there never hesitated in taking on the project. Still, I know we’re taking risks with the study. I just hope we’ve calculated wisely and that we have a bit of good luck.

[August 16 Addendum:]

It seems as if the protests have been postponed. At least, a press conference earlier today in Malawi stated the vigils/protests will be postponed for three reasons: (1) an injunction against demonstrations has yet to reach a decision in court, though the ruling is expected soon after the court reconvenes at 2pm Malawi time today; (2) to see if the UN delegation in Malawi assisting with the dialogue between civil society leaders and the president bears any fruit; and (3) to prevent the loss of life and property witnessed on 20 July. The news is bittersweet. I was very concerned about the growing tension in Malawi and general safety (not just my own or those of our survey staff). Still, with the announcement of postponing the protest, it is unclear whether Malawians will still take to the streets (NB: there have been reports that the Blantyre civil society organizations may still protest) and thus it is unclear whether we will actually be fielding a during-protest survey tomorrow. This is to say that at least one of the risks I worried about (investment in a project to research an event that doesn’t occur) is being realized.

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