Category Archives: but not as you know it

Failures and Meta-Failures

It’s true, isn’t it? It’s shocking how much of what we read about food security in rural Africa amounts to some variation on “smallholder farmers lack access to X.”

Sure, the X varies depending on the focus of the person doing the talking: education, credit, medical care, mosquito nets, clean water, agronomic advice, seed, irrigation, and an “etc.” that’s as long as the list of Africa’s woes. But the basic structure is always the same.

I think that points to a kind of meta-deprivation. It’s not just that people in much of subsaharan Africa lack access to the things they need, it’s that they lack access to the means of gaining access to the things they need.

Key among them: markets, markets that actually work properly, that are fair and reliable and trustworthy.

I see this clearly in Uganda. It’s not that markets are absent in Uganda: they’re all around, both literally and metaphorically. They bustle, they operate, they’re not “missing”. It’s just that trust in market transactions is extremely low. The suspicion that the person you’re buying from or selling to might be trying to cheat you is ever present, and fraud and abuse are widespread.

Policing markets, ensuring trade is minimally fair and fraud is punished, these are core state competences. These aren’t things that development partners can really do for a country: it either gets it together enough to do them itself, or they don’t get done.

In Uganda, the institutions designed to oversee market transactions are exceptionally weak. Development partners’ response tends to be piece-meal: if the market fails and deprives smallholder farmers of access to credit, an MFI comes in and extends access to credit. If the market fails and deprives farmers of access to seed, USAID comes in tries to help out seed producers. For each failure, there’s an aid project. Or, realistically, several.

What I see less of is people grasping that these individual failures are all just manifestations of the broader meta-failure. And that, being a failure of the state to carry out core-competencies, that meta-failure may not actually be resolvable via development assistance.

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.