Africa’s rising middle class: time to sort out fact from fiction

  By Professor Henning Melber, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS

Image credit: Botschaft-Madagaskar

Since the turn of the century the middle classes of the global South have taken centre stage in economic policy circles. Animated by diversification of some countries’ economies, a handful of economists from international agencies and think-tanks began a discourse that then entered African and development studies.

This in turn led to calls for policies to be redirected. Countries were urged to strengthen their middle classes. The leading proponents were the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) followed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The OECD’s view is evident in its Global Development Perspectives 2012 report and the UNDP’s in its 2013 Human Development Report.

The main economists behind this push included World Bank chief economist Martin Ravallion, his former colleague, William Easterly, Nancy Birdsall from the Centre for Global Development in Washington, and Homi Kharas from the OECD Development Centre.

They define middle class as a group of people with a minimum of anything from US$2 to $10 monetary income/expenditure a day.

But such a reduced approach misses much of what is required for a proper analysis of a class – its character, and its positioning in and impact on society. Rather, the discovery of the middle class was linked to its anticipated role in promoting social change to which those in the “business of development” could pin their hopes.

This, however, shifts the debate away from the critical assessment of obstacles to development. It thereby gets in the way of a proper diagnosis of the real challenges to promoting more social equality and justice in some of the most unequal societies in our world.

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