Modernising Africa and its inequality blindspot

Photo source: Dinesh Krishnan
Photo source: Dinesh Krishnan

When spoken about in Western media particularly, Africa has often been presented as a continent ravaged by wars and blessed with vast natural resources yet barely able to feed its people and compete with the rest of the world economically. To present the African continent in this way is not entirely untrue though in the words of the celebrated Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, it presents only one side of the story – “a single story.” The Africa of today is still plagued by many of these problems yet a great deal of change is taking place; the so-called ‘African middle class’ is well and truly on the move.

By ‘middle class’, I refer to individuals and households that are seeing their incomes rise at a rate that provides them with sufficient disposable income to consume on what in economics we call ‘a higher indifference curve.’ They are able to spend their ‘income excess’ on more, higher value non-food items such as foreign holidays, land, property, company shares, other financial securities, and more. These households and individuals are generally well-educated, to university degree level at least. Several have been educated abroad at some point in their lives and the majority of them can be considered to be in professional employment, as accountants, lawyers, engineers, doctors, IT consultants, educationists, or business people.

According to McKinsey, the global management consulting firm

“many Africans are joining the ranks of the world’s consumers. In 2000, roughly 59 million households on the continent had $5,000 or more in income — above which they start spending roughly half of it on nonfood items. By 2014, the number of such households could reach 106 million.” – McKinsey Quarterly, June 2010 Report: What’s Driving Africa’s Growth?

And naturally there will be many other households and individuals earning way above this level. When we look at the education of their children, many are opting for private education over state education systems which in countries such as Zambia, are just about coping due to numerous solvable challenges.

In the minds of virtually all respected commentators, the economic progress being experienced by the continent’s middle class is all good news for the continent’s populace. They often cite the benefits of strong local demand for local products, a widening tax revenue base and job creation undertaken by entrepreneurs. It is worth pointing out however that rising living standards and increased consumption often lead to the middle classes in many countries (not just developing countries) consuming more imported products and not local products necessarily.

Many African countries, including my own, did away with the socialist economic model that was synonymous with the one-party state 20-25 years ago. Many of our Independence leaders had held on to that model unswervingly since Independence in the 1960s and 70s. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became clear that the model was just not working. Strikes and protests became the order of the day. But with a new generation of African leaders came widespread change and the arrival of democracy and economic liberalisation. Some of Zambia’s state-owned enterprises, most famously its mining giant ZCCM (Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines), moved from public to private hands. The mines were now going to be run not directly in the interests of the people of Zambia but primarily for profit for their new private shareholders.

As the 20th century drew to a close, it became more obvious to people that they were living in a new economic era. I speak about Zambia particularly here but about the continent more generally. Government policies encouraged investment, primarily foreign but increasingly domestic too. It became an era where you did not have to wait to be employed, but you could start your own business and be an employer. An era where you did not have to rent a house all your life, but you could actually buy or build one and pass it on to your children as part of their inheritance. It was now an era where you did not have to feel bad about becoming financially successful, you just went ahead and did it. The American Dream, or something akin to it, was well and truly alive…in Africa!

And this is what all those protests in the 1980s and 90s were about right? These are the sort of societies we have been desiring to build all along, right? When we speak of lifting people out of poverty, this is the point we want them to get to, surely? Amidst talk of economic progress, however, exists a thin line in my mind between immense optimism for the continent and grave concern.

As an African, I have become fed up of seeing images of poverty-stricken Africans become the defining feature of my continent abroad. We Africans detest that and so anything that reflects our continent in a more positive light is welcome. News of consistent economic growth is often presented as one of those positives. But I raise the question: are we at grave risk of becoming increasingly-divided societies in the process? I am entirely in favour of economic progress, private-sector led economic progress that is, but economic progress that supports the few over the masses is nothing to write home about.

The progress being achieved at present is not as widespread as it should be. Consider urban township dwellers exposed to poor sanitation and at risk (year in and year out!) of waterborne diseases such as cholera? Or the children unable to learn at their rural government school because of teachers striking in protest of better working conditions? Or the father grossly underpaid by his employers on one of the country’s several mines because Labour Ministry officials fail to enforce minimum wage laws? If GDP (Gross Domestic Product) figures are impressive, do these other issues become unimportant?

When governments fail to honour their obligations to the masses, those with a stronger voice must speak out for those unable to speak for themselves. Governments need to know their responsibilities and must be held accountable. And if the middle class become too comfortable and too preoccupied with the things that occupy middle class people, then they will soon be rendered passive and ineffective; a community side-stepping economic injustices that exist right on their door steps. I believe that educated and professional Africans (the ‘middle class’) have a responsibility to hold their governments accountable on behalf of those with a weaker voice.

Seeing the suffering in your brother’s or sister’s eyes should lead you not to shut the windows of your Lexus as you drive passed, but it should instead push you to fight for their well-being too. And I do not mean just charity (“Hey, here’s a T-shirt!”) though that certainly will be a part of it. I mean fighting for the authorities to take seriously their responsibilities of creating fair opportunities for all. To take seriously their responsibilities towards not only those already on the ladder of economic progress, but especially towards those that are barely able to get a grip of the first rung.

Without this and more, we risk blindly entering an era plagued by gross inequalities and materialistic obsession, if we have not already. Economic aspirations must be met but economic injustices must also be fought.

This piece was originally written in 2010 under a different heading.

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