New Security Beat is the blog of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP).
Public-Health Campaigns as Outsized Threats to Authoritarian Rule
Jay Ulfelder, Dart-Throwing Chimp
Posted by: ECSP Staff // Wednesday, August 17, 2011
The original version of this article, by Jay Ulfelder, appeared on his blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.
Are certain forms of popular activism more likely to hasten the fall of dictatorships than others? This question occurred to me after reading a recent Washington Post story describing how one Russian woman, Darya Makarova, has turned her own frustration with the poor health care given to her (now dead) young son into a wider campaign that’s has caught Moscow’s eye:
Thousands have turned out for her rallies, written letters, signed petitions or joined in Internet forums. Since Maxim’s death in November, she has raised money to reopen a children’s clinic, with an emergency room, in her community. She has shamed the city into buying three new ambulances, with proper equipment. She has launched a nonprofit organization, Health Care for Children, that has national ambitions. Politicians have sought her out. Pavel Astakhov, who holds the newly created title of children’s ombudsman, came from Moscow to see her – and then appointed her his unpaid deputy, giving her more access and clout. Even officials from the sprawling and notoriously indifferent Health Ministry started to pay attention.I can see why government officials would be nervous about this still-modest and outwardly apolitical campaign. Popular activism around matters of public health and safety seems like it should pose a special challenge to authoritarian regimes, like Russia’s, that stake their right to rule on paternalistic claims about their ability to deliver both social welfare and social protection.
Movements organized around failures of public health and safety are threatening to these regimes because they call out the paternalistic state for failing at its own game. Whatever the form of government involved, one of the modern state’s fundamental roles is to protect its citizens from public health threats. Even when they serve this function poorly, most autocrats claim to be trying, and these campaigns reveal that they are not succeeding.
Continue reading on Dart-Throwing Chimp.
Photo credit: “Your Health rests with…,” courtesy of flickr user okeos.