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.