Rebecca Regan-Sachs

Get In Line, Tunisia: Why This is Only the Beginning

In recent weeks, Tunisian protesters have attracted worldwide attention with major demonstrations against pervasive government corruption. The scale and violence of the protests – not to mention their astonishing success in ousting the long-entrenched Tunisian president – is indeed worthy of global headlines. But in the context of worldwide frustration with corruption and poor governance, Tunisia’s conflict is just the latest of many.

In January 2011 alone, anti-government protests have broken out in Albania, Tanzania, Jordan and Algeria (with the latter demonstrations, like Tunisia’s, sparked by unemployment and food prices but rooted in deeper concerns about corrupt governance). In recent years, numerous government – and corruption -related protests have erupted in countries such as (to name a few): Iran, China, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Pakistan, Russia, Haiti, and Cote d’Ivoire.

This may seem remarkable until we consider that corruption is the world’s “most talked about problem,” according to a recent poll by the BBC. Of 13,000 respondents in 26 countries, more people had discussed corruption in the past month than any other issue, including climate change, poverty and unemployment. The corruption issue rated second only to poverty (and by just one percentage point) when respondents were asked what they believed to be the most serious global problems.

Also not surprising was the fact that corruption was far more likely to be discussed regularly by citizens in developing countries. In India, almost a third of respondents had broached the subject in conversation over the last month. In Kenya, where outrage over election corruption led to the horrific riots of 2008, that number reached 63 percent. Comparatively, only 4 percent of U.S. citizens had discussed corruption in the previous month.

While economists and policymakers may debate the exact nature of the relationship between poverty and corruption, it seems that the world’s poorest citizens have already made the connection. They know it when they lose a job to a family member of the ruling elite. They know it when the president builds a lavish vacation home while rising food prices starve their family. They know it when their streets remain unpaved and their electricity unpredictable, despite enormous inflows of infrastructure aid from abroad. No wonder that when poor people talk about poverty, they also talk about corruption.

But how long can one discuss a problem without taking action? How long can the fuel of frustration be spilled at dinner tables and local bars before a spark ignites a raging protest? In many countries in the last several years, we have seen the answer.

And yet corruption continues unabated in too many countries across the globe-and most perniciously, in the poorest. In Nigeria, for instance, where the BBC found that half of the population discusses corruption with each other each month, the problem is so bad that the country ranks in the bottom 15th percentile worldwide for “control of corruption.”

Tunisia is just the latest country where the population’s latent-if not unspoken-frustration has finally boiled over. But if corruption continues apace in some of the most vulnerable places in the world, then it will certainly not be the last.