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AHI Treasures of Southern Africa /  Joe Ross via flickr

The ‘NIMBY’ middle classes

Saskia Hollander | 26 June 2014

The middle class in Southern Africa constitutes a heterogenous group, and their role in development processes cannot be understood by looking at them from a Western perspective. A large part of the group defined as middle class can hardly keep their heads above water, making them unlikely engines of economic growth. Those who are better off largely benefit from the economic policies that their governments pursue, and therefore have little incentive to change the status quo.

The notion of an emerging middle class in developing countries has gained prominent academic attention, as can be seen from the title of the EADI’s 14th General Conference, ‘Responsible Development in a Polycentric World: Inequality, Citizenship and the Middle Classes’ and the many sessions at the conference dedicated to the topic. This focus on the new middle class is becoming something of a research hype in academic circles. Due to its alleged catalyst effect on economic growth and democratic consolidation, the middle class is being seen as panacea for global development challenges. Yet, the panelists in the session ‘The Role of the Middle Class(es) in the Transitions of Southern African Societies’ emphasized, this might well be wishful thinking.

Fidgeting with figures

According to Henning Melber of the Dag Hammerskjöld Foundation, Sweden, recent scholarly claims of an emerging African middle class are largely based on a ‘fiddling with figures’. Even last year’s Human Development Report spoke of a substansive middle class in the Global South. It stated that between 1990 and 2010, the South’s share of the global middle class population expanded from 26 to 58%, and that by 2030, it would have increased to more than 80%. Furthermore, by that time, this global middle class would account for 70% of global consumption. Yet, as Melber argued, if you look more closely, it becomes clear that only 2% of this group will be living in Sub-Saharan Africa. In his words, “this places Africa’s future in a less optimistic perspective”.

Clearly, it all depends on the criteria used to define middle class. The predominant indicator, used in development reports by distinguished institutions like the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, is monetary income. As a rule of thumb, the middle class comprises those who earn above 2 dollars a day. However, as Nancy Birdsall claims, people who earn slightly above the threshold of 2 dollars can hardly be considered as enjoying a middle-class life. Or, as Melber framed it cynically, “if you are not starving, you are middle class”.

Drivers of economic growth?

Sticking with this rather crude definition, Melber continued, certainly serves economic marketing purposes. If countries are considered to have an expanding middle class, they become attractive for marketers and investors. But these claims do not match social and economic reality. As The Broker argued previously, a large group of middle classes in Africa, as well as in Latin America and Asia, remain extremely vulnerable to economic shocks. They may not be starving, but they do not have enough money to save or to secure an education for themselves and their children, and therefore do not enjoy long-term economic security. Consequently, these middle classes can hardly be considered as the drivers of economic growth. Moreover, as Nathanael Ojong stated in a previous EADI session, a large part of the African middle classes is active in the informal economy. While these activities guarantee them a certain standard of living, they do not contribute to a country’s long-term economic development.

Drivers of democracy?

Given their economic vulnerability, as The Broker argued previously, it is also wishful thinking to perceive these lower middle classes as the drivers of societal change. As they still face the risk of falling below the poverty threshold, they - as Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs would suggest - are still mainly occupied with safeguarding their livelihoods, rather than acquiring political freedom developing modes for self-expression. But what about the upper middle classes? What about those people who do earn enough to enjoy a certain level of economic security? The presentation by Roger Southall of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, did not hold out much hope for these groups, either. Southall argued that the political role of the black middle class in South Africa is indeed small, which can to a large extent be explained by history and the specifics of the South African modernization process. Under apartheid, the upper black middle class largely aligned with the working class behind the ANC.  And because the ANC government pursued policies primarily aimed at black economic empowerment, the black upper middle class is still largely mingled with the ruling party.

Moreover, as we heard in other conference sessions - for example from Jie Chen on the middle classes in China and from Luis F. Lopez-Calva on the middle classes in Latin America - the upper middle classes in the South largely benefit from the liberalized economic policies that their governments pursue. They are therefore more inclined to adopt a reluctant stance towards societal change. This has led to them being referred to as as NIMBY (‘not in my backyard’) middle classes. Although they might embrace political liberties and progressive policies in general, they have little incentives to change the status quo as this might imply economic losses on their part.

The middle class as a gatekeeper?

Such a conservative stance towards societal change on the part of the Southern upper middle classes was underscored by the presentation by Thorsten Euler of the University of Bremen. On the basis of his research on South African middle-class engagement in environmental organizations, Euler argued that most members of the black middle classes in South Africa are reluctant to embrace environmentalism, as this is largely associated with a ‘Western’ or ‘white’ agenda. In addition, membership of a societal organization comes with a price, and a large part of the black middle classes (i.e. the lower middle classes) simply does not earn enough to be able to be fully socially engaged. Yet, Euler claimed, it takes time for the middle-classes to be perceived as drivers of change. When issues like environmentalism are no longer perceived as a mainly Western agenda, but are reframed to incorporate issues of justice, inequality and citizenship, they might well be embraced by the more wealthy part of South Africa’s black population.

The various presentations during this EADI General Conference paint a rather pessimistic picture of the role that the middle classes will be able and willing to play in driving societal change. What becomes clear is that our ‘Western’ notions and theories on modernization processes do not travel easily across contexts. Assessing the potential of the middle classes as catalysts for change requires knowledge about the people who actually make up this group and the economic and societal activities that they perform.

The Broker reports from the EADI conference 'Responsible Development in a Polycentric World: Inequality, Citizenship and the Middle Classes', 23 – 26 June 2014 in Bonn, Germany. The Broker is main media partner during this conference.

Photo credit main picture: AHI Treasures of Southern Africa / Joe Ross via flickr