Photo: Martin Pieters,

More consumers won't rescue democracy

Many view the rapidly growing middle class in Africa as the solution to the continent’s political and economic problems. NAI researcher Sirkku Hellsten questions the very concept of the middle class and instead points to an absence of political ideology as the biggest challenge in Africa.

Middle-class people in Africa are living under high expectations. Not only are they supposed to boost the economy by being taxpayers and consumers, they are also assumed to be enlightened citizens, with a strong commitment to democracy and human rights.

“It is an unwarranted assumption, indeed. Do people get more democratic simply because they have more purchasing power? In addition, the definition of the middle class is very wide and unclear”, Hellsten, author of a chapter in the newly released book "The Rise of Africa's Middle Class”, says.

Purchasing power
Most economic definitions of middle class currently in use rely heavily on purchasing power and neglect factors such as employment, social status and level of education. The Human Development Report 2013 states that a daily expenditure of between US$2 and US$10is enough for a person to belong to the middle class. Even more generous is the African Development Bank's definition, which produces an African middle class of 500 million people, almost half of the continent’s population. It does not add up when one considers the Gini coefficient index, which measures distribution of wealth. Many African countries are at the bottom of that list, which rather suggests that the rich are getting richer faster than poor people are becoming less poor.

“It seems that the very purpose of referring to a large middle class in Africa is to hide the fact that poverty has not reduced as much as expected. Another problem is to use the concept without a proper class analysis. In Africa there only seem to be three classes: the elites/rich, the poor, and the huge middle class in between. The analysis never refers to peasants, workers or the bourgeoisie, which has been the case in a European class analysis”, Hellsten notes.

For decades, Marxism and socialism were common concepts in African countries also. However, without the experience of an industrial revolution African socialism never had a working class to build upon. In Europe, workers organised themselves against the elites’ class oppression, whereas in Africa people mobilised against colonial oppression. Often local elites led the struggle against foreign rulers.

“This is a significant difference. Nowadays, however, one can discuss if class is relevant in Europe anymore. What makes the concept of class even more questionable in African countries is that there people tend to identify themselves more by geographic location, ethnicity or religion, rather than by the ambiguous concept of social class”, Hellsten remarks.

Donors dictate
Even with today’s blurred ideologies, in many European countries it still applies that a vote for a social democratic party means greater public influence over society. Similarly, voting for a conservative party puts more faith in market forces. Such division is rare among political parties in African countries according to Hellsten. Aid dependency is one of the reasons behind this. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as bilateral donors, dictate national economic policies in Africa.

NAI researcher Sirkku Hellsten

“International donors are often inconsistent towards African partners. They demand the introduction of multiparty systems and promotion of a pluralistic society. At the same time, however, African governments must support economic policies that fit the donors’ preferred model and support a capitalist market economy. Then, naturally, all political parties become more or less the same”, Hellsten says.

If political parties do not have different views on how society should be organised, what then is politics about? According to Hellsten donor influence leads to a scramble for power that creates other, sub-national loyalties. Ethnicity, religion and geographic location become more important than nation-wide efforts to create social equality. She uses the concept of Afro-libertarianism, which refers to the fact that many African governments embraced the economic liberalism that foreign donors imposed on them. However, the same governments never adopted the idea of ​​political pluralism. Instead, they retained more traditional African collective values that call for solidarity with and loyalty to one’s community. These communities seldom include entire populations, but rather delimit over other boundaries such as ethnicity, clan, family or religion.

“Not only the poor but also the middle class vote for leaders who share their ethnic or other community-based background. Without any clear political ideologies to choose from, they see this as the only way to try to guarantee even some benefits coming their way”, Hellsten says.

Unclear alternatives
When political parties do not offer clear values or ideological direction, people seek answers elsewhere. Some find answers in religion, which provides very clearly defined values and guidance on dos and don´ts. People know that they live in unjust societies and many are discontented with the current governance situation and widely spread corruption. They crave change, but the political system does not offer any clear alternatives that would improve the situation and their lives.

 “This was evident during the Arab Spring. People were tired of bad leadership and social injustice, but had no other defined ideological direction towards which to take the society and the nation. In the end, changes were only made on the surface. Furthermore, when societies lack ideology and values, populism and extremism easily get a foothold. The expansion of the middle class does not rescue the situation; more political commitment to democratic values is needed”, Hellsten concludes.

TEXT: Johan Sävström

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