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The growing anger of the merely, barely middle class

The growing militancy of middle class citizens in developing countries is very much in the news these days; and there is a corresponding attempt to understand why so many protest movements in developing countries are now being led by hitherto quiescent middle classes. I have particularly enjoyed analyses by Francis Fukuyama in the Wall Street Journal, President Lula of Brazil in the New York Times and James Surowiecki in the New Yorker. The humble contribution I’d like to make (from my personal experience) is this. To understand the growing anger of middle class citizens in developing countries you have to understand two aspects of the conditions under which they live: the merely bit and the barely bit.

Let’s begin with the merely bit; that is, why in many of these countries when you are merely middle class you have a problem. To grasp why being merely middle class is a tough situation to be in you have to understand what those they aspire to be like (the well to do in their societies) are able to provide for themselves. Before I left Nigeria in the middle 1990s, the wife of one of our leading politicians came up with the following insight: that to be comfortable you had to become your own local government. And she was right. Here are the things that your local government should provide and it did not and so you had to provide these things for yourself:

  • Electric power supply (buy a generator and supply it with diesel everyday);
  • Water supply (dig a good borehole or buy tanker loads of water on a weekly basis from private suppliers);
  • Education for your kids (go private);
  • Security for the home (security guards and the lot);
  • Healthcare (private doctors, private hospitals, and healthcare secured overseas);

The list goes on but you get the point. That is why in countries like Nigeria to be truly comfortable you have to take on a massive recurrent cost base. The merely middle class are educated; they know enough to understand that these services are basic entitlements of citizens, and to understand that they are not receiving these services because of bad or poor governance. What is more, because they are merely middle class they do not have the option of private provision of essential public services. They simply cannot afford to do so.

This merely middle class predicament struck me forcefully when I moved from Lagos to London. After a few years, I bought a small house in a suburb of London, in a new estate. I remember observing with awe the process by which the local government threw services around the new estate. By the time the family moved in, it occurred to me that if I were back in Lagos to fund the lifestyle that we had in that tiny house I’d have had to be a multi-millionaire. In London, all I had to do was have a decent enough job, pay my bills, pay my taxes, and I could enjoy the same basic services that the rich friends I envied back in Lagos could afford to provide for themselves. Then throw in affordable consumer credit and you could not only buy a house, you could buy a car or cars, you could buy expensive household durables, pay for all these over time and they became yours.

What that means is that in countries where middle class citizens have these basic benefits you do not have to force yourself to earn extraordinary income – by whatever means possible – in order to afford basic comforts. I am not sure many people who work in development realise the extent to which corruption in the public sector (including the private sector players who facilitate it) in many developing countries is driven by the sheer pressure on middle and high ranking civil servants to earn enough money to become local governments unto themselves.

Finally, the barely bit. Many of those in the middle class in developing countries know that their station is not robust, that it won’t take a lot for them to fall back into poverty. Fragility defines their condition. They need and want more security, greater social insurance, some terra firma under their feet. And they know that, properly run, their societies ought to be able to provide these benefits.

All this is why I believe that middle class militancy in developing countries is only just beginning. The emerging and growing middle classes (3.2 billion strong worldwide by 2020, and 4.9 billion by 2030) desperately need good and accountable governance. Governing elites that do not make sure they have it can expect a whole lot of trouble in the years ahead.

Sina Odugbemi is a consultant at the World Bank External Affairs Operational Communication.

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