From protest to reform: A study of social movements’ success

By Amira El-Sayed

From protest to reform: A study of social movements’ success

Luminate commissioned FairSquare Research to explore four recent protests -- Armenia’s 2018 “Velvet Revolution”, Brazil’s 2015-2016 pro-impeachment demonstrations, the 2019 “October Revolution” in Lebanon, and Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests of 2020 -- to examine why some movements succeed and others fail.

From the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia to the Taksim protests in Turkey and the Maidan protests in Ukraine, social upheavals can gain strength seemingly suddenly, often around a single event, and then go on to challenge deeply entrenched power structures. 

What makes these protests so powerful is activists’ and movement members’ willingness to risk life and liberty in their urgent desire to work against— against an oppressive regime, discriminatory legislation, or a systemic lack of justice. But after these early chaotic moments, disruptive movements too often fade away without creating the long-term changes that they sought.

Often, there is significant resistance against the aims of social movements. Governments push back, and push back hard, to quash civic  dissent, and oppress protests against systemic challenges and injustices. They do so through policy, legislation, and through the use of their security apparatuses. 

In 2020, for example, the U.S. government used heavily militarised security forces to violently respond to overwhelmingly peaceful protests challenging systemic injustice and violence against Black Americans, and especially Black men in the U.S. 

But the success of social movements is not only threatened by a state’s own government. Other adversaries, governmental or non-governmental, can play a significant role in distorting, shaping, and even undermining the aims and purposes of social movements. 

A poignant example is the Chinese government which, in early 2021, blocked a UN Security  Council statement condemning the  military coup in Myanmar, undermining civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. 

Sometimes, the threat to a protest movement’s success comes from within. When movement leadership is weak, or overly rigid and centralised, movements have a hard time realising their goals. Equally, when movement structures are not built for the long haul, it becomes hard to build and sustain momentum for lasting political change. 

Importantly, even when protests “succeed”, long-term reforms are not a given. Activists can lack a long-term vision for change which goes beyond immediate and short-term demands, leaving them ill-prepared for the “day after” the big disruption. It is because of this that many seemingly successful protest movements do not lead to sustainable change. 

Luminate is keen to understand how those internal challenges hinder social movements from achieving continuous, lasting, positive change. This is why we commissioned this report, as an opportunity to learn from and make a contribution to a vibrant and courageous field. 

We asked a number of questions: How can movement leaders take forward the momentum that they created to build sustainable political change? How can they build the bridge from political disruption to political reform? And ultimately, how can they succeed? 

This report, authored by FairSquare, provides some first answers to those questions. We are excited to continue exploring protest movements, and how they can best help achieve more just and fair societies.