Is rise of middle class good for democracy?

Editor: Nic Cheeseman
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In his fortnightly column for the Daily Nation, Nic Cheeseman asks how we should define ‘middle class’ – is the common definition of $2 a day a robust measure? Should we be looking at a much higher bar? Focusing in on Kenya, he also explores the attitudes of middle class Kenyans towards democracy.

Economists and political commentators are getting increasingly excited about the rise of the African middle class. Organisations such as the African Development Bank calculate that the middle class has rapidly expanded and is now 310 million strong. In response, the media has taken to speculating about the potential impact of this.

For the most optimistic of commentators, the new middle class will become voracious economic and political consumers. Not only will they demand a broader range of higher-end products, stimulating economic growth, they will demand a greater set of political choices, supporting political liberalisation. A recent Reuters headline ran ‘Africa’s Middle Class Drives Growth and Democracy’.

But there are good reasons to be skeptical. The growth of the middle class in Africa looks less impressive if one uses more demanding criteria than those people living on over $2 (Sh175) a day. Moreover, even if the size of the middle class has increased, little hard evidence has so far been provided to show that its members are more resistant to divide and rule politics than the average citizen.
The case of Kenya

Kenya is as a good a country as any in which to test theories about the African middle class. On the one hand, it has a self-confident middle class that is easily identifiable. From regional hubs in the former Central, Nyanza, Rift Valley and Coast provinces to the European style coffee shops in Nairobi, wealthy Kenyans exhibit many of the characteristics that are said to make the middle class distinctive.

They are well educated – often abroad or privately within the continent, they have access to and typically use new technologies, they are integrated into international networks through which they receive a broad range of news and information about the wider world, and they are politically active.

They also compromise a growing proportion of the population. According to the African Development Bank, in 2011 the Kenyan middle class stood at 6.48 million (16.8 per cent) – the fourth largest in sub-Saharan Africa. But what exactly does this mean? The AfDB calculates the size of the middle class based on the number of people earning more than $2 a day and less than $10 (Sh870). This measure defines the middle class in relative terms: those who are not poor and not vastly wealthy given the average income in their country.

How big is the African middle class really?

But is someone earning just $2 a day really middle class? This threshold appears to have been chosen because it was double the $1 a day wage that the World Bank estimated individuals needed to survive at the time. But why should it be double, rather than treble, or quadruple? It may be true that individuals on $2 a day are not starving, but it is also true that they are living on the edge of poverty and could easily find themselves in dire economic straits as a result of ill health or bad luck.

Tellingly, $2 a day is considerably lower than the average daily consumption of the European and North American middle class two centuries ago. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, two academics that have carried out influential research on the size and nature of the middle class around the world, estimate that the average daily wage of members of the middle class in the UK in the 1820s – when the country was democratising – was about $12.5 (Sh1,087) a day in today’s money.

This raises the question of why we are using a different standard to define the African middle class than was used to define other emergent middle classes in other continents over the last hundred or so years. It makes sense to understand class in relative terms if we just want to talk about how many ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ there are in a given country. But if we want to know how many people have achieved a certain level of financial independence, or a certain level of education, then we need to know something different, namely how many people are economically secure and enjoy sufficient disposable income to be able to invest in their education and that of their children. This is something that a $2 a day threshold simply cannot tell us.

On that basis, it is tempting to argue that the lower threshold should be increased – at least if we are interested in the relationship between class and democracy, because people on two dollars a day can hardly be said to be sufficiently free from financial concerns that they have no qualms about putting democracy ahead of their own financial position.

For example, we could define the African middle class as those people living on between $6 (Sh522) and $16 (Sh1,392) a day. If we were to move to this definition, the story of the rapid rise of the African middle class would quickly fade away, because the percentage of people counted as middle class would drop from 48per cent to 7per cent in Cote d’Ivoire, 48per cent to 32per cent in South Africa, and 28per cent to just 3per cent in Tanzania.

Class and democracy

But even if the middle class is smaller than some of the more sensationalist reports have claimed, members of the middle class may still have distinctive attitudes to civil liberties and political rights. To test whether this is true, I conducted interviews and reviewed survey data on the beliefs and attitudes of the Kenyan middle class over the last four years.

Researchers have generally thought that the presence of a strong middle class would promote democracy for one of three reasons. First, because middle class individuals are likely to be more educated, which encourages more critical attitudes to authoritarian rule. Second, because middle class citizens are more likely to be wealthy, and so are more likely to feel secure enough to defend democracy. Third, because people in the middle class are more likely to be in formal sector jobs that are independent of state control, and so are better placed to stand up against the abuse of power.

My research looked for evidence that these three factors really do lead to higher levels of support for democracy in Kenya. So what did I find?

Some readers who are used to the old argument that the salience of ethnicity crowds out any role for class in Kenya might be surprised to read that employed, wealthy and educated Kenyans are more likely to hold democratic views than their less educated, poorer, and less educated, counterparts. More specifically, Kenyans in full time employment are more likely to reject authoritarian rule than those who are unemployed or not looking for work. Similarly, wealthier Kenyans are also more likely to prefer democratic government than those who cannot afford a car or a motorbike.

I also found that more educated Kenyans are more likely to express strong support for political rights and civil liberties than those who only attended primary school. What really seems to matter to the middle class is a deep commitment to the freedom of speech and association. It is this, and not anything to do with value of multiparty politics or opposition parties, that is distinctive about the attitude of middle class Kenyans.

It is important to note that these findings hold up even when I take into account whether individuals live in urban or rural areas, how much media they consume, their gender, and their age. This is important, because it means that the impact of being middle class cannot simply be reduced to living in a more cosmopolitan area or accessing more information – it goes well beyond this.

The resilience of the middle class

On this basis, the expansion of the Kenyan middle class seems to be a very positive development for long-term democratic consolidation. But how reliable are these findings? Is it possible that middle class Kenyans are simply more likely to be aware that supporting democracy is the more socially acceptable outcome?

In other words, could it be the case that most Kenyans have very similar attitudes to democracy, but that wealthier and better educated Kenyans are more likely to give the ‘right answer’ to foreign researchers and survey companies? It is impossible to rule out this possibility without further research. It is also very difficult to know whether individuals will stay true to their attitudes and values when push comes to shove.

Around the last election, for example, many members of the middle class reported being unsure as to whether they should follow their principles and vote for the candidate with the best qualities and policies, or bow down to the pressure from their communities to vote along ethnic lines. The way that different members of the middle class navigated this moral dilemma is brilliantly captured in an article on the Kenyan middle class by Dominic Burbidge, which was recently published in the Journal of Modern African Studies.

The paper, which is based on diaries kept by members of the Kikuyu middle class during the 2013 election campaign, reveals that individuals continued their soul searching right up until election day. It demonstrates that many middle class Kenyans wanted to reject ethnic politics, but also that many found it hard to do so. How many people ended up voting ‘ethnically’ we will never know, although the fact that more ‘respectable’ candidates such as Peter Kenneth secured far fewer votes than had previously been predicted suggests that this happened more often than not.

Where does this leave us? What we do know is that the Kenyan middle class appears to hold democratic values, but is probably smaller than people have estimated. What we don’t know is how resilient these attitudes are, and whether they will become more resilient as the middle class expands in size and confidence. This is something that only time will tell.


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