Economic and Social Research Council
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Social movements can change the developing world

In the developing world social movements led by urban, rural and often indigenous people who are opposed to projects they regard as inappropriate and exploitative can be very effective. Research jointly supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department of International Development (DFID) suggests that in Peru and other developing nations, it is possible for social movements to drive real change.

Professor Tony Bebbington, lead researcher of the Social Movements and Poverty project, says that these movements can be especially effective in new democracies. The project studies movements in Peru, where democracy has been reasserted since 2000, and in South Africa where the right to vote has existed since 1994.

He points out that in both nations, social movements have succeeded in addressing issues of concern to poor people. In South Africa, many have focused on achieving affordable services such as water, electricity and sanitation. In Peru, there have been successful women’s groups fighting for better nutritional standards.

Professor Bebbington says: "These movements have been very successful at putting issues on the national political agenda. They can operate as well in low-income areas of cities as in rural areas, and while they may make demands for rights, their approaches are often very realistic. Although they are sometimes ignored by the established national media, both of the countries we looked at have many alternative media, often online, with which social movements have close relations."

Social movements are not always on the political left. Both Peru and South Africa have movements that are socially and politically conservative, and in some cases have been linked to conservative movements within the Catholic Church. And popular social movements do not necessarily start with massive strategic ambitions. "They might begin with a specific mission like getting a city law passed that would make it easier to get credit for house-building, and then develop that into something bigger", Professor Bebbington states.

The current economic crisis is making social movements more important. "When you have total destitution, people are less able to start a movement to help themselves. But they are often formed during the early stage of an economic squeeze, as people notice their economic position worsening and their political rights coming under fire. After that, their success depends on whether they have enough resources to demand a response from government", says Professor Bebbington.

Successful social movements, says Professor Bebbington, demonstrate that conflict can lead to positive institutional change. "In Europe, developments such as the welfare state grew largely out of social conflict. Likewise, we are finding that social conflict in the developing world can also lead to progressive change. In South Africa, we are seeing better provision of shelter in slums and shanty towns. Although activists are still being arrested in Peru, and people have once again died in recent conflicts there, we also see a new willingness to consult indigenous people and there have been changes in the way mining, oil and gas projects there are regulated."

In other cases Professor Bebbington studied, social movements do not use conflict but make positive proposals for improvements that are promoted through collective action, demonstrating new ways of addressing needs and challenging exclusion.

For further information contact:

  • Professor Tony Bebbington

  • Email: ABebbington@Clarku.Edu

    Telephone: (001) 508-793 7370

    Cellphone: (001) 774 232 9711

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Social Movements and Poverty' funded ESRC-DFID (Department for International Development) joint scheme carried out by Professor Tony Bebbington at Manchester University. Professor Bebbington is now at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
  2. The project involved extensive fieldwork in Peru and South Africa, with participants in social movements as well as people in government and the media. It ran from July 2007 to January 2010. Professor Bebbington led the work in Peru and his colleague Dr (now Professor) Diana Mitlin led the South African research, and is based at the University of Manchester. This research been discussed at conferences and workshops in both countries and is the subject of a book published in Peru.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at
  4. DFID - the Department for International Development is leading the British Government's fight against world poverty. Find out more at  DFID has a strong commitment to commissioning world class research which directly improves people’s lives, and ensuring that it is readily available to those who can use it around the world. DFID also aims to use the best evidence, from any source, in its own decisions, and to evaluate programmes so that we can learn lessons from them. Find out more at: 
  5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as very good