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The Growing Anger of the Merely, Barely Middle-Class

Sina Odugbemi's picture

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 realize 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.

Photo Credit: Semilla Luz
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Submitted by Anonymous on

Great article with new perspective on the issue. I'd add the following article to the three other middle class movement pieces you mentioned at the top. This one seeks to understand the middle class movement in richer countries:

Submitted by Michal on

Thank you very much for this article. It has thought provoking implications in relation to the role of education in societies of the so called developing countries. There is a general agreement on the universally positive effect of education on the development of societies. However, without good governance and without accessibility to basic goods and services, education may lead to social unrest and instability.
Coming from humanistic background, it would be simply wrong to claim that education is to blame; however education does create a gap between knowledge and reality. Furthermore, globalized education provides information not merely about local deficiency, but also about global inequality. The newly educated middle classes realize their insufficient social dispositions in their failing societies and also in relation to the global unequal society.
So how do we cope with this double power of education? Information via education gives power to the people; but it also stimulates waves of frustration as they realize that their power is often illusory; locked behind walls of corrupt governments, 'cultural traditions', regional instabilities,...

Submitted by Claudia Melim-McLeod on

The Awakening of the Giant

I have followed this thread with interest and having just come back from Brazil, I thought I would share my perspective as a middle class Brazilian and a governance advisor at UNDP. Below is a short article I have written for the UNDP Democratic Governance Insights, a monthly newsletter:

Inclusive participation and responsive institutions in an ‘incomplete democracy’: the Awakening of the Giant

On June 20, over one million people took the streets in 388 Brazilian cities two weeks after a group of students protesting against an increase in bus fares organized a demonstration that gathered 30,000 people in São Paulo.

Although initially focusing on transportation, calls from protesters quickly evolved to demand better service provision in health and education and the rejection of a bill which would make it harder to investigate and punish corruption. In a country where football is revered and few events capture national attention more than the World Cup, many observers were surprised to see anti-World Cup slogans and chants among the demonstrators, who called for investments in schools and hospitals rather than public expenditure on stadiums, airports and other infrastructure required for the event.

The scale and magnitude of the various demonstrations held during that month has been coined in Brazil as the ‘awakening of the Giant’, in a reference to the national anthem, which alludes to the country as a giant (because of its geographic dimensions) that is “eternally asleep in a splendid cradle”. Puzzled by the suddenness and scale of the protests, international media quickly labelled the events of June as another of the series of demonstrations that started with the Arab Spring, explaining it as “Brazil’s new middle class now wants better services”.

That is not incorrect, but it is only part of a much more complex and troublesome picture. Journalists have powerful incentives to craft short but effective messages that may reinforce what we already know, but add an element of novelty. Short news articles rarely question the underlying conventional wisdom, but confirm it (which keeps us in our comfort zone) and add a new bit of information to it so the reader can learn something new. Like journalists, development practitioners and policy makers need to be able to discern trends and patterns among isolated events to help us mentally organize the data at hand, codify information and respond to the needs of those we serve, be it the ‘national partners or ‘the poor’. But as Francis Fukuyama noted in a Wall Street Journal article entitled The Middle-Class Revolution, the case of Brazil is different, which makes it hard for us to fit it in a pattern, because unlike other countries that staged many of the mass demonstrations of public dissatisfaction of recent years – the Arab Spring, the Indignant movement in Spain, Greece’s general strikes, and Turkey’s Taksim Square - Brazil’s 6% unemployment rate was among the lowest in the country’s history, and as late as March, the government enjoyed a comfortable 65% approval rate, with President Rousseff’s personal approval rate an astounding 79% . What, then, could have caused the June protests to gain such intensity and why did the approval rate for the President and her government drop after she declared her support for them?

This article goes beyond the interpretation of protests as the rise of a ‘new middle class demanding better services’ to argue that the key driver of the hundreds of public demonstrations that have taken place in Brazil for the past three months are in fact deeper symptoms of two distinct, but interconnected circumstances: what has been termed by a group of Brazilian academics and artists as the Brazilian ‘incomplete democracy’ along with disenchantment with traditional political parties and a crisis of representation that has been observed elsewhere recently, more notably with Italy’s Five Star movement and the various Occupy movements.

Social media membership has increased exponentially due to the expansion of the middle class in Brazil and the numbers of people who can afford computers and mobile phones, and as elsewhere, social media were instrumental in mobilizing public opinion and participation in demonstrations. But the middle class itself is not entirely new. There has been a “traditional” middle class, albeit small, since the early 20th century, but it has expanded dramatically because poverty has indeed been reduced: from 2003 to 2011, 40 million people left the ranks of the poorest of the poor and joined what in Brazil is known as ‘C class’ – the lower middle class (defined by income level – people with a gross monthly family income of USD 850 to USD3700). Nonetheless, inequality remains stark. In 2010, the national census showed that the 10% poorest Brazilians had 1.1% of the national income, while the 10% richest kept 44.5%. Among those who have been unemployed for over a year, 63% are women and 60.6% are Afro-Brazilian . But there is no evidence that a rise in income means a rise in civic engagement, and Brazilian analysts do not see an increase of the ‘C’ class as a determining factor unleashing public dissatisfaction .

The voice of the streets

There were three contributing factors to the massive participation of the middle class, new and traditional, in the demonstrations.
A first factor to bear in mind is that although President Dilma Rousseff declared the demonstrations “legitimate and part of democracy” , at state level police reacted with a level of brutality reminiscent of the military regime that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. The President’s statements and the response of the police was one of the first signals of an ‘incomplete democracy‘, revealing a disconnect between the progressive discourse and practices of the central government and a different response by local authorities, which still harbor a security sector culture that has changed little since military rule, when beatings, torture and ‘disappearances’ of political activists were the norm.

Local journalists covering the June demonstrations in São Paulo were among the first victims of police violence and this made the journalists’ union, bloggers and opinion makers more sympathetic to the demonstrators, moving public opinion and leading to a swelling of numbers of people in the streets. While the coverage of the dominant news corporation was seen as pro-government or manipulative by many of the demonstrators, independent media showed police brutality live through web streaming.

Secondly, following the first protests motivated by bus fares, “infuriated consumers”, as Romulo Paes de Sousa, Director of UNDP’s new Rio + Centre put it, adopted a wider agenda, questioning spiralling costs for stadium renovations and infrastructure for the World Cup (estimated at USD 14billion, though mostly privately financed ). The contrast between the state of the art infrastructure required by FIFA for Brazil to host the event and the country’s public schools and hospitals lacking personnel and basic equipment was another powerful catalyst to further mobilize public opinion. FIFA’s President dismissive attitude to popular demands during his visit in June further fuelled national outrage.

Thirdly, an important contextual factor to keep in mind was a major national corruption scandal involving the top brass of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhandores - PT ) in recent years, which had eroded the image of social progress and accountable governance that made initiatives such as PT’s participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre and other cities famous in Brazil and abroad. Increasing allegations of corruption and fraud in public procurement at the central and sub-national levels led to widespread disillusionment as it became clear that free and fair elections did not guarantee more integrity and accountability in public affairs. Rather, it sent citizens the message that “all parties steal” and “all politicians are crooks”. PT flags were burnt and torn by irate demonstrators during the protests, against cries of “Sem partido! (No Party)”.

The shift from cheaper bus fares to a focus on the misuse of public funds thus hit a nerve with Brazilians across all walks of life and became a powerful catalyst uniting otherwise indifferent or socially divided people against corruption. It was translated in the June demonstrations simply as “less stadiums, more schools” or “no corruption”, a banner that served as an effective point of convergence for Brazilians who had decades of accumulated frustration at well-publicized corruption schemes deviating public funds to support the self-enrichment of politicians across the political spectrum.

This new focus on corruption was key to attract the sympathy of the “traditional” middle class which may not depend on public transportation, but who pay taxes at a level comparable to Northern welfare states and must still rely on expensive private schools and health care for quality services. These groups do not feel represented by the PT and deeply resent policies like conditional cash transfers, which they view as “assistencialist” measures that create a culture of dependence on the state. Their support to demonstrators through social and traditional media, and their participation in the June 20 demonstration was a major contributing factor to the institutional response that followed.

…and the response of institutions

The response by all three powers of government was swift and unprecedented in Brazilian history. At the local level, the increase in bus fares was revoked in all cities. At central level, in a matter of days, President Rousseff announced ‘pacts’ around five key areas: fiscal responsibility and inflation control, political reform, public health, urban transportation and education. Congress passed legislation allocating 75% of oil resources to education and 25% to the health sector. The President of the Supreme Court publicly defended the ‘recall’ of politicians, a mechanism that would replace those who did not honour their mandates.

But the damage to the public trust in political parties to channel public demands was already done. President Rousseff’s approval rate dropped to 45%, and her government’s to 31% , and efforts by different parties to capitalize on the demonstrations were met with distrust and anger. Political party flags were largely absent from demonstrations and politicians from the left and right became the targets of new protests in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In the course of July and August, demonstrations became fragmented as a myriad of so-called ‘acts of protest’ were organized behind causes ranging from gay rights to accountability for policy human rights abuses. The inability of protesters to continue to unite behind a unified set of demands became more evident as political parties tried to take advantage of the protests to promote their own visibility, with an eye on elections in 2014.

Determined to avoid co-optation by political parties and unwillingly help with the promotion of political agendas, the groups of young people who first organized the massive demonstrations of June receded and in some cities were replaced by smaller groups promoting anarchy. As a result, the ‘middle class’ became scared of participating in demonstrations that became battlegrounds with frequent vandalism and the use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets by the police. As the character and purpose of the smaller ‘acts of protest’ failed to resonate beyond these groups, the middle class withdrew from the streets and went back about its business.

Dichotomies of an ‘incomplete democracy’

In an open letter to Rio’s Secretary of Public Security, a group of academics, artists and intellectuals wrote: “the popular manifestations of the past months ought to be seen as one of the most dynamic ways to improve our incomplete democracy.” Events of the past three months had indeed showed that while Brazil has managed its political transition from military to civilian rule peacefully, institutions, practices and policies have evolved at very different paces.

Whilst poverty reduction coexists with inefficient services for the poor, official democratic discourse on transparency, social inclusion and human rights has not been able to address a culture of impunity for corruption and police violence. The act of voting (compulsory in Brazil) in democratic elections has not delivered on the premise of representation and the Brazilian representative democracy, though inclusive, did not prove to be robust enough to deliver accountable institutions. As Brazilian journalist Sergio Fadul writes, “no one accepts a system in which political parties have become private firms and in which the electoral process has become a trading floor around seconds on TV, and where political alliances are built around private interests and not values or party programmes” . The group Anonymous Brazil put it more starkly: They [members of congress] never represented us”.

By early September, all that could be seen of the grandiose mass movements of June are a few scattered tents in Rio, which staged some of the greatest protests, with groups of youths outside the local government building with a banner saying ”Ocupa Câmara” (Occupy the Chamber). But the results achieved by the June 20 demonstrations remain. Important legislation was passed to secure financing for health and education, and the sense of political apathy among the young is no longer there. As French philosopher Pierre Lévy remarked on the events in Brazil, “a consciousness has emerged. Its fruits will come in the long term” .

However much ground the Brazilian democracy still has to cover, the events of June provided a showcase example of voice and accountability, raising civic awareness and showing citizens the power they have to demand – and receive - responses from institutions. The Giant may slumber again, but he is now aware of his strength.

Submitted by Claudia Melim-McLeod on

Thank you, after I submitted I realized I had sent a draft, but the essence has not changed. On a lighter note, this is a video created by a group supporting the protests, that aptly used a Johnnie Walker commercial and a song created for a Fiat commercial to entice people to the streets with the message "Vem pra Rua" - come out to the streets. It is very creative, and entertaining to see the giant coming alive:

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