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B Y  A D A N M A   A B U L A N U M
The Case for Social Research on Africa's Middle Class 

When I joined Busara, I had the feeling that this was the missing piece in international development; a radical, contextualised focus on beneficiaries and end-users that would explain why interventions failed to deliver desired results. Soon, anyone in my household unfortunate enough to fall into a project demographic was an unwilling respondent. Your brother is a farmer, you say? Does he have insurance? Would you buy him insurance? Why not? Hang on, wait, put the bucket down; would you say you were present biased, risk averse, cognitively overloaded? Soon, I expanded beyond my projects, wondering what heuristic my mother was using to make...confusing forex decisions. Or why my neighbours fail to pay their service charge and yet grumble when the lights go out, or the taps run brown. In finding one piece, I discovered another missing; a radical, contextualised investigation of Africa's middle class.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) defines Africa's middle class as individuals whose per capita daily consumption is between $2 and $20. We, in international development, are mostly unconcerned with this group. We are here to deliver impact at the bottom of the pyramid by raising income for millions of households and empowering individuals, especially women, to make educated decisions, free of bias, for themselves and their families.

Let us start with 'educated'. Countless studies have demonstrated a link between scarcity and decision making; when decisions must be made quickly, information is drawn from familiar, but limited sources. Employers from the middle class are one such source. In March 2020, when Covid-19 showed no signs of going away, my housekeeper was skeptical about the existence of the virus. After lockdown was lifted, I was surprised when she would arrive, mask faithfully on. Or when she wiped surfaces without being asked. Or when she was late one morning because she was waiting for a less crowded bus. In ever-curious mode, I asked her what had changed. She said she realised there must be some truth to the news when, on our last day together before lockdown, she watched me buy a large amount of non-perishable food I would not ordinarily eat.

"But you and I were listening to the same news channels," I probed.

She stood firm. "That is when I started believing."

For her, the educated decision was the one I made. I have warned her that that will not always be the case.

What about income? The upper middle classes play critical economic functions both in paying the bottom of the pyramid (and the lower middle class) for services, and in their role in labour supply. Countless domestic labourers, unable to report to work, were dependent on their employers to make decisions about social distancing. If your employer's mental accounting allowed them to pay you while you obeyed lockdown measures, social distancing was an option. If they had high risk tolerance, they might require you to report to work or risk losing your salary. Is it not important, then, to pay a little more attention to why my aunt might doubt the news but want the vaccine, while my mother inhales the news, but doubts the vaccine? Not only do these thought processes draw millions into the orbit of small and super spreader environments, but they have fundamental implications for income stability and risk weighting when shocks occur.

Where labour supply is concerned, small, medium and large enterprises across Nigeria consistently report anxiety about a growing executive gap. Talent management, teamwork, and critical thinking are in short supply, while entrepreneurship is increasingly the goal. 1.4 billion entrepreneurs are unlikely to build stable, growing economies and so we in development might do well to systematically explore the norms and behavioural barriers that might stymy the acquisition of professional skills or perhaps promote deference at the expense of creativity. If we do not contribute to the professionalisation of Africa's growing middle class, we will continue to ignore a critical feature of any economy.

Finally, 'empowerment'. In
an excellent discussion on African protest movements, Lisa Mueller argues convincingly that middle class grievances about income, political autonomy and education explain the timing of protests, while the rank-and-file explain the size of participation. Protests are fed by the financial resources, organising power and access that the upper middle classes bring. We might rightly investigate voting behaviour and political participation amongst Africa's poor, but we should pay the same, if not more, attention to those who drive and implement political change. After the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, the upper middle class agreed enthusiastically that Nigeria's bottom of the pyramid would benefit from civic education. We should not forget that most of us suffer from the same biases we ascribe to others and would benefit from that same education.

We know from
this fascinating map that Nigerians and Zambians are most curious about the cost of weddings, while the cost of building a house is the overriding concern in Cameroon, DRC and Madagascar. If we assume that the middle class drives these Google searches, it is there we must look first to understand how these preferences affect critical behaviours and the norms they influence. Our efforts in this sector will fail to deliver transformative change until we acknowledge the individuals that can build and sustain forward motion. If the concern is the availability of research participants, rest assured that when the time comes, I, like many other bewildered Africans, am ready and willing to donate my entire family to social science research.

Let us know what else you think we in the global development space can do to maximise the impact of our work, or reach out if you'd like work with us to build an evidence base for a new approach.

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Editor's Note 

It’s safe to say that, most of us in the developmental world signed up because we wanted to “change the world” or, at the very least “make it a better place.” Through consistent reflection on our efforts, we can continue to change our approaches to fit the changing landscapes. Here are some interesting reads that challenge traditional ways of thinking as we search for better answers to shifting questions in the world of poverty alleviation.

Income poverty is the wrong yardstick Most people living in poverty depend on natural resources like land, forests and livestock for survival. In this article, Down to Earth explains how the more a group of people rely on ecology/nature for survival, the higher their probability of falling into poverty, making a case for why ecological degradation should be made a strong consideration in development programs.

The myth of unconditionality in development aid The idea of giving directly has grown in popularity with Give Directly being applauded for their successful unconditional cash transfer projects. This criticism by Mario Schmidt goes into why those transfers were not so unconditional, and how we could reframe giving directly to make it truly unconditional. 

The foreign aid game is changing - here are the opportunities for Africa As paradigms shift, The Conversation takes a look at where Africa lies in the larger picture and how organisations that are working in Africa can take advantage of the current trends in global economic policy to achieve their goals.


Links we liked

Research takes you to different corners of the world and helps you glean interesting tidbits, some that spark a thought and lead to further studies, others that are just that, interesting. We have a bit of both for you this time around, and will leave it up to you to decide what to do.

The cycle of life as told by age

Throughout history, it was typical to see both birth and death rates at higher levels. But today, in most parts of the world, women are having fewer children, and innovations in healthcare and technology mean we are all living longer. This infographic takes a look at demographics around the world, exploring how the changing landscape of age could affect our future.

1/4 of GHG emissions come from food production

Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture - a huge leap from the 4% that was used for the same purpose 1000 years ago. The expansion of agriculture has transformed habitats and is one of the greatest pressures for biodiversity. Reducing this impact will involve some smart thinking around what we eat and how we produce it. Our world in data goes into how we might achieve that.

Less travel but more waste

When the pandemic first hit, one may have been tempted to conclude that the silver lining of everyone quarantining at home was a reduced environmental impact. However, as we stayed at home we created an enormous amount of plastic waste. We also may have created long lasting habits that will litter our lands and oceans with plastic for years to come.


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“A norm doesn't have to be logical to exist in a civilized society, it just has to be non-prejudicial.”
― Abhijit Naskar
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