Last week, the Pew research center released an exhaustive report on global income patterns in the first decade of the 21st century. It challenges the concept of a “global middle class” by showing that the great majority of middle class people are concentrated in certain regions — in particular, Western countries and China — and that most people around the world who escaped poverty since 2001 have not actually achieved middle class status. There are many striking statistics embedded in the mostly grim, 95-page document — for good summaries, check out the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and Slate — but the section on Africa, in particular, caught our attention:
Nearly four-in-ten Africans (39%) were poor in 2011, although this share is down notably from 2001 when about half (49%) lived in poverty. The formerly poor appear to have transitioned mostly into low-income status, as the share of this group of Africans increased from 45% in 2001 to 54% in 2011. Thus, the share of Africa’s population that is either poor or low income barely changed from 2001 to 2011, edging down from 94% to 92% in that decade. Middle-income people in Africa represented only 6% of the population in 2011, virtually unchanged from 2001.
To be sure, the world’s second-largest continent in the world isn’t one place with just one story. Many countries in Africa bucked the trends: Morocco and Tunisia experienced large gains in their middle class populations, while poverty increased significantly in Zambia and Kenya. Still, the overall pattern was clear: While African countries are reducing poverty rates (albeit slowly), they are failing to build strong middle class populations. And as the Financial Times notes, that failure might make previously optimistic international corporations more hesitant to invest in Africa in the future.
There are a number of sources for Africa’s sluggish wage growth—from weak states to ethnic conflicts to irrational colonial borders—and a great number of proposals for how to fix it. But the latest data should at least draw attention to the scale of the challenge. The absence of a strong African middle class is a cause of great concern, and a reminder that poverty alleviation is not the same as full economic development.