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Coups and regime change: How has political turmoil around the world affected location ratings?

ECA International

While the ongoing coronavirus pandemic was certainly the main story in 2021, another notable phenomenon was the number of coups and military takeovers seen in parts of Asia and Africa. These have made life more difficult for expatriates in those locations and, in some cases, have led to increased location allowances. Indeed, the biggest score increase of all in ECA’s new location ratings (published in mid-November) was largely not pandemic-related.

Myanmar had been on a relatively positive trajectory in recent years, slowly adapting to democracy after decades of military rule and seeing improvements in quality of living for expatriates and locals alike. All that changed in early 2021 when a military coup saw the armed forces take control of the country, following general elections in which Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy won convincingly against the military-backed opposition. The military claimed the result was fraudulent, using this as justification to seize control of the country. Civilian leaders, including Suu Kyi, were arrested and a year-long state of emergency implemented. The protests against the takeover have at times been violent with a number of battles between protestors and the authorities. Curfews have been imposed and there have been restrictions in the availability of some goods and services, including restricted access to cash. 

As a result, Myanmar’s location ratings score went up significantly owing to changes in aspects of the scoring such as Goods and Services, News and Media (due to increased censorship), Expatriate Community (a significant number of expatriates and/or their families were evacuated after the coup), Personal Security and Socio-Political Tensions. This was enough to move Myanmar into the highest location allowance band for many home bases.

Another aspect of the Myanmar location ratings scoring which increased was Culture. There is an aspect of the Culture score which assesses the system of governance in place and how similar it is to that of the home location of the expatriate. If an undemocratic transfer of power takes place (or, conversely, if free and fair elections have been held perhaps for the first time) then we will often see a score change in this category too. This was the primary reason for increases in scoring for locations in Afghanistan in 2021. Most scores for Kabul, for example, are already very high, if not at the maximum possible level. However, the Taliban’s swift re-establishment of control in the country in August necessitated an increase in the Afghanistan Culture scoring.

The West Africa region has seen many coups in recent decades and Guinea is no exception. President Alpha Conde was overthrown in a military takeover in September, and this has led to an increased Culture score from many home locations. If democratic elections take place in 2022 it is possible that this will return to the pre-coup score, though it is far from certain that these will occur. Mali, meanwhile, experienced a second coup in as many years, with the military officer who led the 2020 coup taking charge of the 2021 takeover too, after the interim President he had installed last year proved unsatisfactory. This was effectively Mali’s third coup in a decade and, unsurprisingly, has seen the Governance score worsen. 

East Africa also saw a significant amount of unrest in 2021, with two countries which had seen tentatively positive steps in recent times returning to a state of heightened instability. Violent protests erupted in Sudan following a military takeover in October. The transitional government which had been running the country since long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir was ousted in 2019 had removed some of the more extreme measures in place under his regime, but these positive steps are now being reversed and elections are not expected until 2023 at the earliest. Elsewhere, Ethiopia essentially descended into a civil war as rebel group the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) took control of large parts of the country and at the time of publication was even threatening the capital, Addis Ababa. The Socio-Political Tensions scoring increased significantly as a result. At the time of writing, that threat has receded somewhat but the potential for further deterioration remains. This is unfortunate as Ethiopia had made some moves towards greater stability following the end of the long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea in 2018.

The Israel-Palestine conflict flared up again in May, though the confrontation lasted only two weeks before a ceasefire was declared. The Socio-Political Tensions scoring for both Israeli and Palestinian locations recognise the potential for such increased tensions and conflict to occur, so this came as no surprise. Elsewhere in the Middle East the situation in Lebanon continued to worsen. Though there was no repeat of the devastating explosion which rocked Beirut in 2020, the economic situation declined even further, with increases in Health and Goods and Services scoring serving as a reflection of the deteriorating infrastructure and the increased difficulties facing expatriates based in the city.

The volume of terror attacks in Europe has decreased somewhat recently, likely dampened down by restrictions on movement during the Coronavirus pandemic. However, a terrorist in Kongsberg, Norway, killed five people in a crossbow attack in October, an unfortunate reminder that the threat has not gone away. Meanwhile, Haiti in the Caribbean has seen a chaotic year with spiralling levels of gang violence and the murder of President Jovenel Moise in his home in July.

While the focus in 2021 was on pandemics and coups, we should also recognise the impact that natural disasters had on expatriates. While there was not a significant number of natural disasters in our 500 published locations compared to some years, the damage and disruption caused by Hurricane Ida in early September saw the natural phenomenon score increase for some US cities. 

Returning to the Caribbean, the La Souffriere volcano on the island of St Vincent erupted causing significant disruption and the displacement of over 15 000 people. The natural phenomena score increased as a result. The Chinese city of Zhengzhou experienced a similar increase owing to major flooding in July which led to commuters becoming trapped in flooded underground railway tunnels and a number of fatalities. Dili in East Timor also saw major flooding in April as a result of Cyclone Seroja. 

So, what can we expect in 2022? The coronavirus pandemic continues as we enter the new year but there could be other issues impacting on the lives of expatriates in the coming months. One potential flashpoint is at the Russian-Ukrainian border where a Russian military build-up in recent weeks has raised fears of an imminent invasion attempt which could result in a wider conflict. Military flyovers of Taiwan by Chinese aircraft have exacerbated invasion fears in East Asia too. While both situations are unlikely to develop into military conflicts, the potential for them to do so will be worrying for expatriates on the ground. Whatever happens in 2022, ECA’s Location Ratings team will continue to keep a close eye on events and their impact on international assignees.

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