More causes have been proposed for what has been dubbed the Arab Spring than countries have taken part in it. They include poverty, unemployment, government repression, a yearning for democracy, demographics, and even Facebook and other social media. But Filipe Campante, an assistant professor at Harvard Kennedy School, has identified a particularly combustible combination present in many Arab nations, which spurs not only political protest but also the overthrow of political leaders.
In a new paper titled “‘The People Want the Fall of the Regime’: Schooling, Political Protest, and the Economy,” Campante and coauthor Davin Chor, of Singapore Management University, use economic data to show that increasing levels of education combined with economic underperformance help explain the kind of political protests that have arisen recently in many nations, particularly in the Middle East. “It appears that an interaction between individual skills and the dearth of economic opportunities that reward those skills lies at the heart of the political turmoil that has shaken the Arab world,” the authors write.
An economist, Campante has been examining the role education plays in political participation and how that role is conditioned by economic circumstances. When the Arab uprisings began to stir, he found similarities in the countries involved that became the focal point of the paper.
“It jumped out of the data once we looked at it,” Campante said in a recent interview. “It fit nicely with this research agenda we’ve been pursuing for a while.”
Analyzing data from the World Values Survey, which includes information on political participation, the authors found that people who earn a low income relative to their education level tend to take part specifically in protest modes of political activity, such as demonstrations or strikes. In contrast, educated individuals who enjoy more favorable economic circumstances are less likely to engage in political activities. Campante notes that Arab countries, including sites of upheaval such as Egypt and Tunisia, have experienced large increases in higher-level schooling in recent years without a commensurate increase in prosperity. “It is not that a combination of high skill and poor rewards is dangerous simply because people will be upset about it, but also because the opportunity cost of engaging in political protest for skilled individuals will be lower,” he writes.
These conditions increase the chances that incumbent rulers will lose their offices, according to Campante, who analyzed turnover data on country leaders from 1976 to 2010. This is the case, he asserts, after controlling for a country’s having a large youthful population, which is often seen as a primary reason for political instability. In addition, he writes, “it is not just about rulers being more vulnerable in poorer countries, but also that incumbents can become more imperiled if an increasingly educated populace is faced with worsening eco- nomic prospects.” In particular, advanced schooling that provides workforce skills as well as basic literacy affects incumbent instability. Campante also found that incumbent turnover is often accompanied by greater democratization.
The paper’s results should not be interpreted to mean that providing educational opportunity is detrimental from the perspective of a country’s leader, the authors argue. Indeed, although increases in schooling accompanied by lack of economic gains can lead to political instability, countries in the Middle East that have done a better job of providing suitable opportunities for their educated populace, such as the United Arab Emirates, can be expected to provide less motivation for political protest. Campante also cautions that political protests are not an inevitable by-product of improved education and a lack of reward for it, and acknowledges that political forces beyond his analysis often factor into incumbent instability, such as public revolt against the repression practiced by the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
At the same time, the data indicate a striking pattern that can potentially predict which countries are ripe for political turmoil, says Campante. “The basic lesson is that investment in education without commensurate economic opportunity is a risk for incumbent governments,” he says.
— by Lewis Rice