middles classes & the globalization of #winning

News agencies and development pundits have been hailing the news that one-third of all Africans are now categorized as middle class and can be compared/ compete with China and India’s middles classes. I see a number of problems with this news, the criteria used to define middle class, and the comparison between an entire continent of people and those of two large countries (both of which are increasingly involved in development in Africa). The recent report from the Africa Development Bank (PDF) says that:

34%, or 313 million Africans are now middle class (living on $2-$20 a day), after several decades without any change, a jump from 27% in 2000.

The Asia Development Bank published a similar report last year saying that 56% of the Asian population is living on $2 – $20 a day (PDF). This calls into question the definition of middle class. I consider myself middle class in the United States of America and my family has been characterized as middle class ever since I can remember. However, my family and I definitely live on more than $20 per day and I would never imagine being able to call myself middle class based on how much money I spend in a day. Its all about location. Here in the US, the term middle class is synonymous with the “American Dream.” It is not so much a hard and fast economic development term that we can use to compare ourselves with other countries, but rather a socio-cultural term that is used to compare ourselves to each other in our attainment of the “American Dream” (Western notions of success).

The Guardian cites MIT economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who point out that:

the middle classes are: likely to be less connected to agriculture; more likely to be engaged in small business activities; and benefit from formal sector employment, with a weekly or monthly salary, which enables them to adopt a longer-term perspective towards their finances.

Even with a more economic definition, nothing about the term middle class is set in stone and it varies widely between communities and countries (more economic definitions of middle class). The Guardian continued to note that $2 is the poverty line for most countries, so if you live on more than that you are middle class, but there is no in-between. This only continues to prove that “middle class” cannot be defined by economists or development pundits. If we look closer at the term in the United States, it has always been a fluid and flexible term that a wide range of the population wanted to use. The majority of Americans call themselves “middle class” even when many fall into “working” or “upper” class categories based on their income levels.

Middle class often means achieving higher education, holding a professional job position, owning a home, and having a well established lifestyle that is socially acceptable. All of these status symbols mean something different across culture and country of origin. Populations bend and shape their definition of being “in-between” poor and more well off by different standards that are generally unwritten. If we use the United States as an example again, the Pew Research Center conducted a study on social and demographic trends to find that there isn’t just one middle class in America, but four! The study found that people often held onto definitions of middle class that defied traditional stereotypes.

In conclusion, we are all middle class. Whether we want to call ourselves middle class or we truly fit the economic definition, the majority of individuals around the globe identify themselves in the middle class. There is a global middle class that has no financial boundaries, but rather includes all individuals who seek advancement, education, and something more than what they currently have. Economists and development pundits cannot create a definition of middle class for a continent let alone a country, nor can they compare the middle class of the USA to that of another country or especially a continent.

If we want to truly understand if 1 in 3 Africans are middle class, then there needs to be some serious work that includes understandings of success in various countries and asks a large segment of a country’s population how they identify their socio-economic status based on their cultural norms. Why tell someone that their success isn’t as important as another’s?

Photo credit: BBC News

More “African middle class” pictures from BBC News

the continuous scramble for africa

From the so called great scramble to the new scramble, I believe that there never really is any difference or change in scrambling. The imperialist tendencies and actions towards Africa have been concentrated in one continuous scramble – for resources: land, people, minerals, diamonds, timber, markets, etc. A continuous scramble and a systematic exploitation and looting of the African continent. Globalization and the global political economy are generally not looked at through the African perspective. While I can hardly offer that perspective, I work to understand.

For a long while many people, non-Africans, Europeans and African alike have understood the systematic destruction of Africa. Quoted in an article in Alternatives: A book written by Walter Rodney in the 1970s was titled “how Europe underdeveloped Africa” and Karl Marx noted in his Critique of the Political Economy that the “hunt for black skins” signaled the dawn of capitalism. It seems the African continent may have been doomed from the birth of the capitalist dream.

The Scramble for Africa began long before the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, when the African cake was divided by European powers for land claims and resources (slave trade). The scramble, however, did not end after that conference. The European powers were not appeased with just staking claim to the land. Oppressive and brutal remained in control and increased their thirst for more, and more. The Alternatives article notes that there now exists NEPAD, the WTO, EU, AGOA, EPA, and I think you could place any international agreement that places the wants of those in power over the long exploited African people.

The article also notes the increase and spread of the Chinese influence in African markets seeking to gain access to fossil fuels and resources. There is now considerable critique into the effects and practices of the Chinese (I have been part of this). However, this makes the practices of the EU and the USA almost completely fall from the picture. Well the Chinese may be pursuing extremely detrimental practices in Africa they cannot be left as the scapegoat for why Africa is “under-developed,” exploited and robbed of resources to spur growth. The European powers and the USA need to be exposed and the ills of their actions need to be dissected and understood as well. These “historically-structurally disadvantaged societies” need leaders who will place the interests of their country-people above their own advancement. A lot needs to happen if the scramble is to end, but that requires a recognition to the problem and a plan to empower local communities. Resources do not have to be the downfall of a country. As long as the resources are used properly and agreements are in place so that the benefit reaches the people resource can be a positive. It is my opinion that African countries need to adopt a near protectionist policy in regards to socio-economic matters if the scramble and following exploit is to stop.

China is pouring money into Africa for “development” flooding markets and building infrastructure with money that will flow right back into China, the US is militarizing the continent at a frightening rate (nothing new) to “fight terrorism” and gain access to resources in their “triangle of interest,” Brazil, India, Russia, and countless other countries are positioning themselves to yet again eat from the African cake. This competition can work as a positive for Africa, but only as long as the minority of elites need to recognize the great need of their people.

the caramel apple of globalization

Crunch, Mmm, the peanut chunks trapped in delicious caramel tastes oh so good. You bite and are rewarded with a mouthful of inticing caramel and nut flavors – all of a sudden that deliciousness is tainted by an odd sourish, crunchy, mushy apple flavor. What? Where did this apple come from, I like the outside best. This is the caramel apple of globalization – the outside is so delicious and appealing, but once you hit the apple and core, the fun has ended. Granted this all matters if you run with the majority and toss aside the age-old wives tale of eating an apple a day to keep the doctor away. Too many of us see this doctor everyday – there is no escaping this doctor because all too often globalization is used for ill, just to get the caramel and nuts, not the healthy fruit of the free market, fair trade, and multi-lateral agreements.

Globalization is seen as the harbringer of much ill in the world and the truth of this idea is undebatable. All one needs to do is visit a small community in a ‘developing’ country and the negative impact is obviously seen. Globalization, being a negative, can, if used properly, be a positive and can lift poverty from oppressed peoples. Some of the caramel of globalization’s apple I have seen firsthand in my travels of Uganda and Ghana. Trash, more specifically plastic, has created a scar on the beautiful African landscapes sought by all. This trash is piled, burned, and thrown anywhere. The great evolution of plastic was an amazing invention, but has created problems elsewhere. This goes along with the ‘quest for the west’. The Western pop culture permeates everywhere. This an odd development if you ask me because the cultures evident in African societies are so strong and have such beautiful histories and traditions. Maybe the youth in those societies do not think so, that must be a youthful commonality – rejection of old tradition. Terrible western hip hop is loved, most everyone is walking around campus with their earphones in and MP3 players out – you would almost mistake this for an American campus, but for the heat and the obvious difference in setting and language. The love of technology and having a piece of technology is great. Many places we visited, the youth asked us if we had headphones to give them. This interest in technology could also develop into a positive of globalization. There is also the adoption of the word term ‘fastfood’ at typical Ghanaian food stands. Let me tell you, at least in Ghana, there was no such thing as fast food.

Globalization is defined as the sharing of ideas, technology, inventions, thoughts, education – it is an idea as old as the world itself, so why in recent years has it become such a harbringer of ill and a harsh word to the ears? Globalization brings in an international influence that can be seen as an extreme negative, but in some places international involvement is important to foster a strong economy. The idea is to make the right decision so that exploitation of people and resources does not happen. The economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz, attempted to write a book to explain this idea of ‘Making Globalization Work,’ I would recommend the book, but also look into other perspectives. Globalization can be used for as much good as it is used for ill. The important thing is to use the idea of globalization wisely, as with everything else at your disposal for power. I see the crises of black gold and other important resources in African countries ripping the people and governments apart. Globalization does not have to be the end, globalization is the means.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.