Report from the plenary session I: Middle Classes as Development Actors in a Polycentric World

bucarBy Dr. Maja Bučar

The main focus of the conference as well as of the introductory panel is the role of middle classes of both, developed and developing world in development, especially in addressing the main challenges of polycentric world. Is it possible to mobilise middle class to address jointly the issues of rising inequality as well as responsibility for the sustainable “green” development? What kind of development actors are the middle class citizens across the world? Where can their pattern of behaviour take the world? How to mobilise middle classes of the fast growing economies/ regions to become development actors?

The panel exposed different views and approaches to the questions and suggested further issues to be debated in more details. One of the central challenges exposed is how to define middle class. Can we discuss the role of the middle class as development actors without first clearly define the middle class? The very definition of middle class already exposed different views of the panellists. The economic approach by looking at the per capita income per day (4$- 10$ or 2- 20$; or…) is the most widely used option, but it leaves several aspects of characterising middle class open. The attitudes, the values, the experience and thus also the level of activism is very different for the “new” middle class, which has just managed to climb out of poverty and is still facing a significant level of vulnerability from the “old” middle class. We need to take into consideration that new middle class in developing countries (in fact in all the countries) is highly heterogeneous and therefore cannot be viewed as a coherent actor. In fact the type of behaviour of the middle class depends significantly from the way we define the middle class: especially the relationship with the state, the level of economic security as well as the occupation/ education characteristics. The issue of categorisation and definition of middle class, while important to help us explain their potential and role, should not, however, prevent further discussion: the diversity of “new” middle class deserves analytical attention, but should not stop the search for a way to identify and unlock their development potential.

The issue of middle class consumerism as driver of growth was tackled, again from different view-points. Could the concepts of ethical markets, rights at work, sustainability be the concepts the middle classes would endorse and thus positively contribute to the development processes or is the drive for imported consumer goods going to prevail? While following the energy-intensive consumer patterns of the middle class in the “old” industrialised countries is endangering the planet, the question of raising social conscious of the “new” middle classes needs serious attention. The findings of empirical research point to the low level of political activism of middle classes, who much prefer stability of their state than change and focus in particular on maintaining the status quo, which made it possible for them to reach and keep certain life-style. They have often obtained their status due to the policies of the state, so they are likely to defend the political option which provided them with the standard of living. This pragmatism needs to be acknowledged when discussing the role of middle class as drivers of change, especially in discussion on inequality. The political influence of the middle class is highly diverse as well: on one hand the prevailing power of elites in some societies was highlighted, while on the other hand the apolitical behaviour of the new middle classes.

Is there a role of state through investing in human capital and raising awareness of a need for a new paradigm among the middle classes? Will the demand of the middle classes for higher quality services put additional pressure on the governments to improve their delivery or will poor governance result in middle classes seeking other ways to secure such services. In case of the latter, we may witness a collapse of social contract and not its further development, which could contribute to lowering inequality.

The panellists opened several issues and new questions, which suggest that the topic of middle class engagement as development actors is not only valid, but so far under-researched. The many views and approaches need further deliberations and attention of research as well as policy community.

Introduction: Isa Baud, Jurgen Wiemann, Patrick H. Leusch.
Panel members: Jie Chen, Ashok Desai, Noeleen Heyzer, Luis.F. Lopez-Calva, Bright Simons.
Rapporteur: Maja Bučar, Centre of international relations, University of Ljubljana.

Dr. Maja Bučar is a Professor at the University of Ljubljana. Her areas of expertise are the role of science and technology in socio-economic development, R&D policies, innovation policy, international development cooperation and economic development.