Tag Archives: Global South

The effectiveness of violence and nonviolence

by Rob Fairmichael

We were going South……..Global South that is. INNATE had a workshop on ‘Nonviolent struggle in the Global South’ as part of the One World Festival in Belfast in October. Participants seemed to think it was useful and we certainly did, combining as it did information from Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s “Why Civil Resistance Works – The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict” (Columbia University Press, 2011) with a focus on the Global South. It got us thinking in various directions. Input and facilitation was by Stefania Gualberti and myself.

One question to arise in the workshop on Chenoweth and Stephan’s extensive study was whether the data was robust and accurate. One person said they would need another study of the same area (to be persuaded). However as they show a 2-to-1 success rate in favour of nonviolence for the hundreds of campaigns they studied 1900+, they have to be mighty wrong for nonviolence to be any less successful than violence. There is a question of whether you trust their data and analysis but to a lay person it certainly looks well constructed though in addition to questions about their own biases there is also the question of possible bias in data which they took from elsewhere.

There are critiques of their work, some of which are listed at the end of this piece. One key question addressed in relation to Chenoweth and Stephan is how to classify violent and nonviolent campaigns, and inherent difficulties in doing so. Different categorisations can lead to different conclusions.

However in terms of author bias it has to be stated that Erica Chenoweth went into this empirical study of violent and nonviolent campaign very sceptical. It was her voiced scepticism about the relative success of nonviolence while at a nonviolence centre that caused Maria Stephan to challenge her to look at this whole area. They then collaborated together. Such an empirical study hadn’t been done before which led to a workshop participant asking ‘why not?’. No one had got around to it. Obviously there had been lots of studies of successful nonviolent campaigns but no one had tried to compare the violent and the nonviolent in such an empirical study, which was a major omission.

There are many qualifications and so on used in the book, as befits an academic study, but they stand over their 2-to-1 ratio of success. There are lots of questions which arise, including the complexity of campaigns and how they work out especially where violent and nonviolent campaigns are happening simultaneously. One comment brought up in the workshop was whether violent campaigns tended to happen where nonviolent ones had already failed; their work states that it is just as likely for the situation to be the other way around, nonviolent campaigns following violent (e.g. South Africa or in the overthrow of the Shah in Iran).

I would question their judgement (on page 240 in the table of violent and nonviolent campaigns they studied) that the IRA campaign of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland was a ‘partial success’; yes, it came to an end with their allied political party, Sinn Féin, well placed to make advances, and with mechanisms in place to protect all sides. But the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was a peace agreement at the end of some very nasty violent actions on all sides which further divided people in Northern Ireland and made agreement more difficult. And the GFA didn’t actually make further agreement possible on many issues through the functioning (or non-functioning) of the Assembly. I fail to see what was in the Good Friday Agreement which could have not more easily been arrived at the end of a nonviolent campaign, and possibly somewhat earlier. It would be interesting to know what in their own data made them conclude the IRA campaign was a ‘partial success’ – to an interested layperson like me it looks like a disastrous failure but then maybe I am using wider criteria than they had.

The deprecatory quote on two of the ‘sides’ in the GFA (attributed to various people including Tony Blair and Seamus Mallon) that “Republicans are too clever to admit they’ve lost and Unionists too stupid to see they’ve won” has a kernel of truth in it. However if you question one judgement on a campaign (Chenoweth and Stephan’s on the IRA) – admittedly one which is favourable to the effect of violence – it does mean you should carefully question others. And that would be a mammoth task.

One general objection, though not one that surfaced too much in the workshop, is that nonviolence may only work in ‘liberal’ societies or democracies. Definitely not so say Chenoweth and Stephan, it is just as successful in dictatorial or autocratic regimes. Part of the reason for this is that violence gives an excuse for out-and-out repression while nonviolence does not in the same way, or state violence against a nonviolent campaign is likely to backfire and cause disaffection. And that is one of the strengths of nonviolence, they state; nonviolence is very successful, compared to violence, in getting key figures who act in support of the regime to question their role and possibly defect to the opposition (whether in the army or other bastions of the regime). Part of this is because nonviolence engages much more people than violent and they may have, collectively, lots of contacts in the regime elite. While people can be killed by the regime in its countering of nonviolent campaigns, the statistic they come up with it that twenty times (or more) people are killed in violent campaigns, on average.

Another aspect is that they state that nonviolent campaigning is likely to lead to a society that is freer and more democratic than using violence. As with most ‘rules’ there are exceptions; within a couple of years after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran that country had turned into a theocratic autocracy or dictatorship. And an exception the other way is that the violent revolution in Costa Rica after the Second World War (1948) led to the disbandment of the army and a relatively stable and peaceful country.

Chenoweth and Stephan’s case studies in their book are all ‘Global South’ ones; Iran and the overthrow of the Shah, the first Palestinian Intifada, the movement in the Philippines that overthrew Marcos, and the Burmese uprising against military control at the end of the 1980s. One point of clarification here is that the term ‘Global South’ may include most of the southern hemisphere but is not identical with it – perhaps its meaning is the same as the old concept of the ‘Third World’. So Palestine, for example, would be in the ‘Global South’ but Australia and New Zealand would not.

A focus on the Global South is also useful in terms of where our thinking on nonviolence comes from. The classic grand-daddies of nonviolence are often (and sometimes stereotypically) thought of as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, which is ‘one each’ for Global South and ‘Global North’. But if we look at Gene Sharp’s examples of historical nonviolence in his classic “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” (1973) we see that while he does give numerous examples from India and China, and more occasional ones mentioning somewhere like Cuba, the vast majority of his cases are from the Global North’ (including a number from Ireland). So we need to up our quota of examples from the Global South. Some are however relatively well known, without even mentioning Mohandas Gandhi, such as women’s action in Liberia for peace and a settlement to the civil war (2003-2005), and the current actions by young women in Iran.

There are other questions which we didn’t get to consider in the workshop. One would be whether societies concerned are ‘individualistic’ or ‘collectivist’, and to what extent, and whether ‘traditional’ societies may be more collectivist, and differences on this in different parts of the world. How does this interact with the violence or nonviolence of campaigns and their effectiveness? While you might say societies need certain individual freedoms to be truly free, if you take individualism to an extreme then there is no care for anyone else other than yourself. And while a certain amount of collectivism is desirable, to protect minorities and those at the bottom of the pile, too much collectivism can stifle creativity and freedom. Do violence or nonviolence thrive in one kind of society or another?

At a further point in discussion you could perhaps look at differences in nonviolent struggle ‘South’ and ‘North’, and ask whether whatever differences exist, if they do, are because of the nature of society, people’s creativity and determination, or what.

INNATE would be happy to replicate or adapt the workshop on “Nonviolent struggle in the Global South” for other groups and participants.

If you want a quick video overview of Chenoweth and Stephan’s work in this area you can look at

1) Why civil resistance works by Erica Chenoweth – 8 min – 2021 (shown at the One World Festival workshop)

https://www.hks.harvard.edu/behind-the-book/erica-chenoweth-civil-resistance This is on Erica Chenoweth’s follow up book, “Civil Resistance: What everyone needs to know” (Oxford University Press).

2) The success of nonviolence civil resistance – Erica Chenoweth – 12 min – 2013


Critiques and reviews of the material include:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/24886176 and https://www.jstor.org/stable/24886190 (login to JSTOR required on both of these);