Shouldn’t “anti-poverty” and “pro-middle class” be synonyms?

Standard Bank’s landmark study of the growth of the middle class in Sub-Saharan Africa offers some welcome clarity. In the 11 key African economies they look at, they find 15 million households living on more than $15 per person per day, while 95 million households living on less than that. That’s probably 50-60 million middle-class people: a small minority, yet three times as many as 15 years ago, and not far off from the size of, say, Britain’s. Better yet, on current trends, those numbers will rise quickly  by 2030. 

Now, this is fantastic news. Once it gets going, the process of middle-class formation is formidable and, if not quite irreversible, certainly hard to stop. A mass middle class is the force for political stability and growth: the glue that keeps political settlements from growing apart. But that’s all frosting: the cake is definitional. Because there’s one thing you definitely aren’t when you are middle class, and that’s poor.

This is a really, really simple idea, and one that you couldn’t really argue with. Yet it seems to get lost so often. When people “overcome poverty” they’re not launched into some vague olympian category of non-poorness, they become something new. They become middle class.

In some really basic sense, then, being “anti-poverty” should be functionally indistinguishable from being “pro-middle class”. But, of course, in current usage, that’s very far from being the case. All kinds of “anti-poverty programs” are not so much “pro-middle class” but, as the sinister-in-ways-we’ve-stopped-recognizing-due-to-familiarity phrase has it, “pro-poor”: aimed not at making the poor not poor, but at helping craft a more bearable type of poverty. “Poverty alleviation” much more often means “help coping with the negative consequences of being poor” than “help stopping being poor”

It’s this, and not the other thing, that’s overwhelmingly now the goal of the development aid industry. And it’s not surprising, because the toolbox of the development aid industry has relatively little to offer for middle class creation. The processes that drive middle class creation are macro in origi, national in scope and general in application. The development industry toolbox is full of micro-level programs that are local in scope and specific in application.  

There’s never been a recorded case of a country transitioning from poor to middle-income on the basis of a concatenation of local level interventions. That’s a fallacy of composition that should’ve been put to bed decisively by Nina Munk. It hasn’t been. It probably never will be. 

Conceptual clarity would help. I understand that “make poverty history” resonates in ways that “make middle-class universal” never will. But I also know this: until we stop treating them like the synonyms they are, real progress against poverty in Africa will keep happening alongside our engagement, at best, despite it at worse, but seldom if ever because of it.

7 thoughts on “Shouldn’t “anti-poverty” and “pro-middle class” be synonyms?”

  1. More macro less micro less searching more top down – is that your point: good governance, A & R, why nations fail school. A sub-point in your article.

    Pro-poor; pro-middle class; anti-poverty. All liable to be misunderstood but for the last two; not synonymous. But what is a good phrase: development. Sort of has the idea of progression, expansion, movement. Words, definitions, meanings, not so easy to get the objective across.

  2. I agree that non-poor and middle-class are not synonymous. In-between, there is the working class, or at least those doing well enough not to be “working poor,” (including subsistence micro-enterpreneurs) plus those farmers sufficiently well-off to be non-poor. In the developing world, of course, most poor people are working poor or poor farmers; otherwise, in the absence of non-donor-funded safety nets, they would starve to death.

    Middle class implies, to me, someone who has taken the next step up the ladder and is therefore most likely either a skilled worker or a white collar worker (professional). Some reports are defining anyone earning more than $2/day as middle class, which I think is deceptive.

    I do definitely agree that building the middle class is a key objective, especially the private middle-class, which is to say people who either own firms large enough to offer decent jobs to the poor, making them non-poor, or are part of the professionals/skilled workers employed by the former, either as staff or contractors.

    An insight of mine (although not necessarily an original one) is that the middle class are mostly professionals. If bad governance prevents the formation of a solid “mittelstand” employing more than, say, 10 employees, middle class jobs do not materialize. The car repair shop with two helpers does not have a director of sales, an accountant, an HR professional, etc., but the shop with 8 helpers probably has an office worker and may have a more highly paid skilled car-repair guy. The operation with 30-40 employees almost surely has a small staff and may contract for professional services such as IT support or advertising. This is how the middle class grows.

    What stops this from happening: low productivity and forced informality caused by bad MESO policies (between macro and micro). Bad logistics, a predatory local administration, electricity that is absent or intermittent, poor access to land, absence of credit, a legal environment that makes conflict resolution difficult or expensive (discouraging, among other things, bringing in investment partners as a firm grows, which is KEY to growth), rapacious crony capitalism that locks out new entrants, etc.

    There’s a very long list of meso-policy avenues for screwing up your economy and preventing the growth of a middle class. This is why good macro policies do not necessarily lead to growth.

  3. Yes, but if you argue like that people will always say that they don’t really need any development aid.
    Ultimatly (at a deeper level of understanding) one has to realize though that rich and poor are the two sides of the same coin, and while the rich might find it in their interest to hand out charity to the poor, it is absolutly not in their interest to be disturbed by a middle class, which is THE driving force for good governance.

    Sadly I forgot where, but I recently also read a very complelling case that it is especially an independant rural middle-class that is the most beneficial for good governance and substancial development, while a urban one often falls prey to rent-seeking at the hand of the ruling elite.

  4. I think you need to sort out your terms. What does it mean to be ‘Middle class’? For me, it’s generally to move from subsistence, through saving to consumption. Long-term, the earth can’t sustain the number of consumers it already has, much less millions more. Ethiopia’s landscape is already under horrendous pressure. I honestly don’t think it can sustain the current explosion of its middle classes, much less any further growth.

    1. yes middle-class is a bit of a fuzzy term, but usually an increase of the total proportion of the middle class comes with an increase in specialisations and also an increase in overall resource used efficiency that is likely to off-set the increase in consumption for quite some time.

      One of the reasons why the Ethopian landscape is under so much pressure is because there are so many poor subsistance farmers. If more of them would move to industrial jobs / other sallaried positions and buy their food from much more efficient commercial farmers (not necessarily large scale plantation though), it would probably lessen the damaging effects currently seen.

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