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Pakistan’s ‘middle-class’ future

November 20, 2017

ON Oct 31, the Consortium for Development Policy Research and the Washington D.C.-based Urban Institute hosted a discussion on Pakistan’s emerging middle class. There is a broad agreement among those on the panel, as well as within the larger research and policy community, that Pakistan has witnessed considerable growth in its middle-income population.

One classification of this particular demographic is those with incomes between $11 to $110 per day. Using this measure, Pakistan’s middle-income population is around 50 million individuals, or just under 25 per cent of the total. Other definitional parameters will likely change the figure, but the trend we expect to see over the next decade is continued growth in this segment.

The second point of consensus is that of growing consumption. With more disposable incomes, Pakistan’s middle-income demographic exercises — as Homi Kharas puts it — choices in a number of domains. These include expenditure on food (what and how much to eat and drink), housing, services (schooling, health), future occupation, and entertainment and leisure. This is what distinguishes this segment from those below, who’re compelled to make difficult choices in circumstances not of their creation or control, and from people above, who face few trade-offs given largely limitless resources.

We can see middle-income groups exhibiting great variation in terms of their political and social positioning.

The third fact is that such households are more likely to be found in urban areas, and are more likely to invest in educational attainment. This has historically been true for male members in middle-income households, and is now increasingly true for female members as well. Enrolment rates for girls in schools and colleges across urban Pakistan show remarkable improvement from just a couple of decades ago, and the bulk of this can be traced back to upward mobility into the middle strata. This particular transformation, however, has not translated into significantly greater female participation in the labour force. Nor, as researchers from the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives have shown, has it improved the gender gap in political participation.

Beyond these three facts, every other projected or current ‘trend’ is an anecdote or a generalisation. There are several that tend to re-emerge every now and then, the most popular being the middle class will demand better public services and thus broad-based improvements in governance. By the same logic, some argue that it will push for greater and ‘purer’ democratisation.

The reason why these views are built on relatively shaky ground is not just because people cherry-pick data and history, but also because the demographic at the centre of this conversation is wrongly thought of as a unified group and as one interested in universal change. Talking about a middle class (instead of a middle-income strata) automatically forces people to think along the lines of a monolith that simply does not exist. The image most conventionally attached to a middle class is found in just one constituent portion of the middle-income population, ie the educated, white-collar, ‘striving’ demographic. However, a far greater portion lies in other occupational categories, such as farming, retail-wholesale trade, construction, and small-scale manufacturing.

Moreover, household income is merely one of several characteristics that impacts social and political positions. Other determinants include ideology and moral-ethical disposition, ethnic and communitarian affiliation, and even sense of place and belonging. All of these factors have, in a wide variety of country contexts, been found to impact an individual’s worldview and their life choices contrary to what their income position or consumption patterns would dictate.

Going by Pakistan’s own recent history, we can see middle-income groups exhibiting great variation in terms of their political and social positioning. For example, as researcher Ghazala Mansuri points out, while middle-income groups are generally thought to be more vocal in demanding services, this demand may not extend beyond their immediate selves. Karachi’s example is instructive in this regard wherein significant sections of the middle-income population have engaged in a politics of ethnic rights or targeted delivery of services, rather than some broad-based improvement in urban governance. The same holds true for urban Punjab as well, where middle-income groups who’ve supported the PML-N since the 1990s demand particular kinds of service delivery, but are content to obtain it through patronage, rather than programmatic politics.

The idea that growth in some type of middle-class will improve particular long-standing problems in Pakistan is a seductive one, largely because it assumes a degree of automation. It is assumed that the demand compulsions of this class will naturally precipitate it towards seeking greater accountability. This view is increasingly put in favour of the PTI, which is seen as an organic outcome of this compulsion. While the PTI’s rhetoric does dovetail with what some consider ideal middle-class values, its organisational shape reproduces many of the same conventional hierarchies and variants of elite factionalism seen in much of Pakistan’s history.

Across the world, groups historically locked out of political power or upset with the status quo have sought to impact the world by mobilising and contestation. Whether it was the industrial working class in 20th-century Europe, or late 19th-century reformers looking to overthrow gilded age corruption in American politics, a major component of their efforts required forming autonomous organisations that were driven with clear ideological goals. Eventually, the strength of these groups propelled their ideas into the political mainstream.

As of now, middle-income segments in Pakistan have created no such reform-oriented platforms, except of the Islamist variety. The other variants that do exist primarily seek to advance sectional or occupational interests, such as the Young Doctors Association, bar associations, or a myriad array of trader/business organisations. While further growth in the middle-income population is a near certainty, there is little in the present that can tell us about its eventual impact on political and social life.

The writer is a freelance columnist.
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2017