Turning the Poor into Something more Inspiring: The Creation of the African Middle Class Controversy

  • Dominique Darbon
Part of the Frontiers of Globalization book series (FOG)


The author argues from a political science perspective that middle classes in Africa are an ‘elusive reality’, one that results largely from a debate conducted by international organizations and African political actors. The socioeconomic criteria applied in this debate make it doubtful that these middle classes exist outside of theoretical constructions. The author argues that the notion of the African middle class is attractive for a wide range of actors in politics and development organizations because this branding process transforms persons living on the positive side of the poverty line into a promising ‘middle class’ with the potential to lead economic and political development. However, even if an African middle class does not exist as a social fact, the debate surrounding its ‘rise’ does draw attention to deep structural transformations in twenty-first century African societies. This chapter follows the genesis of the debate about new African middle classes, identifies the actors involved in the debate, and presents a novel categorization of the middle classes in Africa, which goes beyond a purely quantitative description.


  1. African Development Bank (AfDB). 2011. The Middle of the Pyramid. Dynamics of the Middle Class in Africa. Market Brief, April 20. Accessed 22 February 2017.
  2. Asian Development Bank. 2010. Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific. Manila, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.Google Scholar
  3. Baulch, B. 2003. Moving Out and Into Poverty—A Q2 Perspective. Paper for the World Bank Workshop on ‘Moving Out and Into Poverty: Growth and Freedom from the Bottom Up’. Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.Google Scholar
  4. Bell, D. 1979. The New Class: A Muddled Concept. In The New Class? ed. B. Bruce-Briggs, 169–190. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.Google Scholar
  5. Béné, C. 2009. Are Fishers Poor and Vulnerable? Assessing Economic Vulnerability in Small-Scale Fishing Communities. Journal of Development Studies 45 (6): 911.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Birdsall, N., C. Graham, and S. Pettinato. 2000. Stuck in the Tunnel: Is Globalization Muddling the Middle Class? The Brookings Institution Center on Social and Economic Dynamics Working Paper, No. 14, Washington, DC. Accessed 8 March 2017.
  7. Booysen, F., S. Van den Berg, M. Von Maltitz, and G. Rand. 2008. Using an Asset Index to Assess Trends in Poverty in Seven Sub-Saharan Countries. World Development 36: 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ceccarelli, L. 2011. Manufactured Scientific Controversy: Science, Rhetoric, and Public Debate. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 14 (2): 195–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. ———. 2013. Controversy Over Manufactured Scientific Controversy: A Rejoinder to Fuller. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 16 (4): 761–766.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cheeseman, N. 2015. “No Bourgeoisie, no Democracy”? The Political Attitudes of the Kenyan Middle Class. Journal of International Development 27: 647–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chevalier, S. 2015. Food, Malls and the Politics of Consumption: South Africa’s New Middle Class. Development Southern Africa 32 (1): 118–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Collier, P. 2007. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What can be Done about it. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Darbon, D., and C. Toulabor. 2014. L’Invention des Classes Moyennes en Afrique. Paris: Karthala.Google Scholar
  14. Douglas, K. 2013. Defining Africa’s Middle Class: A Ghanaian Perspective. How We Made it in Africa. 28 August 2013. Accessed 22 February 2017.
  15. Easterly, W. 2006. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much ill and so Little Good. New York: Penguin Press.Google Scholar
  16. Edward, P., and A. Sumner. 2013. The Poor, the Prosperous and the “Inbetweeners”: A Fresh Perspective on Global Society, Inequality and Growth. London: Kings College.Google Scholar
  17. Enaudeau, J. 2013. In Search of the “African Middle Class”. Africa is a Country, 1 May 2013. Accessed 22 February 2017.
  18. Gordon, D. 1998. Definitions and Concepts for the Perception of Poverty and Social Exclusion in Bradshaw, J., D. Gordon, R. Levitas, et al. Perceptions of Poverty and Social Exclusions. Report on Preparatory Research, Townsend Center for International Poverty Research.Google Scholar
  19. Handley, A. 2015. Varieties of Capitalists? The Middle Class, Private Sector and Economic Outcomes in Africa. Journal of International Development 27: 609–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Harris, J. 2009. Bringing Politics Back into Poverty Analysis. Why Understanding of Social Relations Matters More for Policy on Chronic Poverty than Measurement. In Poverty Dynamics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. T. Addison, D. Hulme, and R. Kanbur, 205–224. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Heiman, R., C. Freeman, and M. Liechty. 2012. The Global Middle Classes. Theorizing Through Ethnography. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.Google Scholar
  22. Jerven, M. 2013. Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to do About it. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Kermeliotis, T. 2011. Are One in Three Africans Really Middle Class? CNN Marketplace Africa, 20 May 2011. Accessed 22 February 2017.
  24. Kharas, H. 2010. The Emerging Middle Class in Developing Countries. OECD Development Centre Working Paper 285. Paris: OECD Development Centre. Accessed 22 February 2017.
  25. Kocka, J. 2004. The Middle Classes in Europe. In The European Way. European Societies during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, ed. H. Kaelble, 15–43. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.Google Scholar
  26. Laurie, B. 2001. “We are Not Afraid to Work”: Master Mechanics and the Market, Revolution in the Antebellum North. In The Middling Sorts: Explorations in the History of the American Middle Class, ed. J. Burton, R. Bledstein, and R.D. Johnston, 50–68. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  27. Mahajan, V. 2008. Africa Rising. How 900 Million African Consumers Offer More than You Think. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  28. McKinsey Global Institute. 2010. Lions on the Move. The Progress and Potential of African Economies. Seoul; San Francisco; London; Washington, DC: McKinsey & Company. Accessed 22 February 2017.
  29. Melber, H., ed. 2016. The Rise of Africa’s Middle Class: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagement. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press and Zed Books.Google Scholar
  30. Narayan, D., L. Pritchett, and S. Kapoor. 2009. Moving Out of Poverty, Success from the Bottom-up. London: Macmillan and The World Bank.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Nay, O. 2014. International Organisations and the Production of Hegemonic Knowledge: How the World Bank and the OECD Helped Invent the Fragile State Concept. Third World Quarterly 35 (2): 210–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. OECD. 2011. Perspectives on Global Development. Social Cohesion in a Shifting World. OECD Publishing.Google Scholar
  33. Phadi, M., and C. Ceruti. 2011. Multiple Meanings of the Middle Class in Soweto, South Africa. African Sociological Review/Revue Africaine de Sociologie 15 (1): 88–108.Google Scholar
  34. Prahalad, C.K. 2006. The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  35. Resnick, D. 2015. Introduction: The Political Economy of Africa’s Emergent Middle Class: Retrospect and Prospects. Special Issue: The Political Economy of Africa’s Emergent Middle Class. Journal of International Development 27 (5): 573–587.Google Scholar
  36. Sachs, J.D. 2013. The End of Poverty, Soon. The New York Times, 24 September 2013.Google Scholar
  37. Sartori, G. 1970. Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics. American Political Science Review 64 (4): 1033–1053.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. ———. 1987. The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham: Chatham House.Google Scholar
  39. Southall, R. 2012. South Africa’s Fractured Power Elite. WISER Seminar. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand.Google Scholar
  40. Sumner, A. 2012. Where will the World’s Poor Live? An Update on Global Poverty and the New Bottom Billion. Center for Global Development Working Paper 305.Google Scholar
  41. Thurlow, J., D. Resnick, and D. Ubogu. 2015. Matching Concepts with Measurement: Who Belongs to Africa’s Middle Class? Journal of International Development 27 (5): 588–608.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Torche, F., and L.F. Lopez-Calva. 2013. Stability and Vulnerability of the Latin American Middle Class. Oxford Development Studies 41 (4): 409–435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Visagie, J. 2013. Who are the Middle Class in South Africa? Does it Matter for Policy? Econ 3x3, 29 April 2013. Accessed 22 February 2017.
  44. Wahrman, D. 1995. Imagining the Middle Class. The Political Representation of Class in Britain 1780–1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wheary, J. 2005. Measuring the Middle, Assessing What it Takes to be Middle Class. Demos Working Paper.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dominique Darbon
    • 1
  1. 1.Sciences Po BordeauxUniversity of BordeauxBordeauxFrance

Personalised recommendations