Is the Rising Middle Class Good for Governance?

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Is the Rising Middle Class Good for Governance?

Getachew Mequanent, September 23, 2011- The recent study by the African Development Bank (AfDB), entitled the Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the Middle Class (2011), defines the middle class broadly to include a group of people who spend (on per capita basis) US $2 -$20 daily. AfDB further divides the African middle class into three groups: floating class (just crossing pass the poverty line) (able to consume $2 to $4), lower-class ($4 to $10), and upper class ($10 to $20). Overall, this class represents one-third of the African population (or 313 million Africans). All of the North African countries and Gabon have over 75% of their populations attaining a middle class status, whereas Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda and two other countries have middle class populations representing less than 10% of their total populations. Ethiopia’s middle class represents 21.5% of the total population, compared with 40.1% for Djibouti and 44.9% for Kenya (no data for the other neighbouring countries of Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia). Otherwise, the rest of the statistics reveals the real diversity of the African continent in terms of the growth of middle class, which the AfDB says “is associated with better governance, economic growth and poverty reduction”.

By applying the AfDB data above, we find that there are 17.2 million Ethiopians in the middle class group (out of a population of 80 million), although 10.8 million of them are in the floating class, which means that they could be vulnerable to income loses swing back to “poor” status. As a group, this Ethiopian middle class population could represent diverse backgrounds including construction workers, medical doctors, university instructors, senior bureaucrats, political elites, NGO workers, foreign embassy workers, business elites, among others. In keeping with the AfDB approach, they should be spending between 35 Birr ($2) and 340 Birr ($20) daily, which, overtime, will result in the expansion of the country’s economic base that allows the rapid growth of gross domestic product (GDP). The latest (September 2, 2011) forecast by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows per capital income in Ethiopia rising to US $1, 305 (22,185 Birr) by 2012, which may indicate that millions of other Ethiopians will be uplifting themselves to middle class status in the coming years, pushing the country towards attaining a middle income country status.

Governance is a system that ensures open and accountable institutions, participatory decision-making, representative government, fair and accessible justice, respect for human rights and other egalitarian values and practices embodied in universal and particular (local) systems. Then, does the rising middle class promote governance?

The Economist (Sep. 3, 2011, online edition) argues that the growing powerful middle class populations in developing countries are getting more and more vocal to demand better governance and good quality public services. For example, a few weeks ago, India saw an anti-corruption upheaval led by a social activist and widely supported by the middle class. As the Economist noted, middle class people in India stand against corruption not only because they see unnecessary waste of resources (e.g., making facilitation payments daily), but also because they sincerely believe that India needs more accountable government. In China, the growing middle class population has increasingly been engaged with the communist state on corruption, public safety, health, environment and other quality of life issues. In North Africa, the middle class has played a decisive role (few even taking up arms) to overthrow authoritarian and corrupt regimes. This way, the Economist proclaims, “Marx’s revolutionary bourgeoisie finds its voice again” – through middle class lobbying, advocacy and political activism. AfDB also notes that middle class people “are likely to use their greater economic clout to demand more accountable governments”. .

While one agrees that the middle class provides leadership in bringing about changes or reforms of government policies, class biases can be imminent and this creates disadvantages for the poor masses in the development process. Also, one should not overrate the role of the middle class. Because, today people everywhere are well aware of different choices on influencing government policies or reforming governments, thanks to modern information communication technologies that have allowed easy access to information (on current events) and knowledge (general public discourse). For example, aware of modern governance systems, the populations of North Africa and Middle East rose up to overthrow autocratic governments that drew their legitimacy from political Islam (i.e., democracy contradicts Islam) and anti-Zionism in favour of universal human rights, democracy and social justice. I once met elementary school teachers outside of Bahir Dar who told me that they would prefer a government policy to correct the rising inflation, not a salary increase (the money doesn’t worth more). These teachers live in Ethiopian small towns and rural communities sharing information with the population, shaping public opinion and raising the bar for Ethiopian political parties to demonstrate excellence in policy leadership, instead of remaining focused on the rhetoric of primordial politics.

At the moment, the Ethiopian middle class wants prosperity and stability. The growing economy has generated optimism for an improvement in national quality of life including access to internet, schools, clean water, health services, sanitation, cars, gas, electricity, food, drink, entertainment, public safety and lean streets. The country’s business elites in fact appear to have been plunged into the current tide of nationalism as they continue to pump billions of Birr to the Renaissance dam project. Sooner or later, the middle class will penetrate Ethiopian political parties through direct participation or lobby and advocacy. Whether or not such class influence would promote broad public interests or class interests should be a subject of debate. What we can agree on at this movement is that open and inclusive governance systems ensure equitable development.
Getachew Mequanent Ottawa, Canada September 23, 2011

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