Waves of protests have seen citizens around the world taking to the streets in anger over soaring food, fuel and electricity prices, with research showing that the rise in their scale and spread is “unprecedented”.

“The world is facing an unprecedented rise in civil unrest as governments of all stripes grapple with the impacts of inflation on the prices of staple foods and energy,” risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft wrote in a report on September 2. 

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The latest reading of Verisk Maplecroft’s Civil Unrest Index (CUI) shows that, over the past quarter, there was an increase in risk of civil unrest in more countries than at any time since the index was released in 2016. Of the 198 countries the CUI covers, 101 saw an increase in risk, compared with only 42 where the risk decreased.

The severity and frequency of protests and labour activism are set to accelerate further over the coming months, as the conditions for civil unrest build in a growing number of countries, the consultancy firm predicts. 

“The resulting threat to economic activity and foreign investment comes at a bad time for businesses, as they adapt to rising energy prices,” says Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. 

“Potential disruption to operations and supply chains is a major concern for companies, as is the potential to be associated with heavy-handed responses to unrest from affected governments.”

More than 10,000 energy protest events took place in 138 countries between November 21 and the first week of August, according to preliminary research findings by Naomi Hossain, professor at the American University’s School of International Service. 

“It strikes me as unprecedented,” Ms Hossain says, adding that data for energy protests in previous years, such as the 2008 fuel protests, is not comprehensive, making detailed comparison difficult. 

The war in Ukraine has massively increased oil and gas prices as both Russia and the West play hydrocarbon supplies as a bargaining chip to force the other’s hand. The market price of fuels and electricity has adjusted accordingly, triggering double-digit energy inflation. 

Protests have erupted in developed and developing countries alike, and have frequently escalated into major internal crises.

“People's protests are generally triggered by high energy prices, particularly when governments cut subsidies, so they keep protesting. The authorities send in the riot police and things escalate quickly to a point when it’s not about food and fuel any longer — it becomes about something else, generally bad politics,” Ms Hossain says. “It is really delegitimising for a government to fail to act when people are struggling to pay their energy bill.” 

Sudden spikes in the price of fuel and electricity are at the heart of the protests that have unfolded across South Asian countries, from Sri Lanka to Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

“High food and fuel prices could prompt social protest and instability,” the IMF wrote in a review of the Pakistani economy on September 1. 

The social unrest has not spared European countries, many of whom are dealing with strikes and street protests against hikes in energy prices and inflation as a whole, as well as Latin American countries, where they have caused major internal crises in the likes of Panama and Ecuador. 

Even before the Ukraine War started on February 24, hikes in liquified petroleum gas triggered a rare wave of protests in Kazakhstan, which soon turned into a widespread infighting and anti-corruption protests. 

“For governments unable to spend their way out of the crisis, repression is likely to be the main response to anti-government protests,” Verisk Maplecroft’s report reads. 

“But suppression comes with its own risks, leaving disgruntled populations with fewer mechanisms for channelling their dissent at a time of growing frustration with the status quo. In countries where there are few effective mechanisms for channelling popular discontent, such as a free media, functioning unions and independent courts, the threshold for populations to take to the streets is likely to come down.”