Over the last two decades, Pakistan has continued to offer much greater upward economic and social mobility to its citizens than neighboring India. Since 1990, Pakistan's middle class had expanded by 36.5% and India's by only 12.8%, according to an ADB report on Asia's rising middle class released recently.
The simplest definition of the middle class is a group of people in a society who are neither rich nor poor. The middle class has always been considered vital to a country's political stability and economic growth. The rich and the poor simply distrust each other too much to let the other govern. Nations with large middle class populations find it easier to reach consensus on sustaining good, democratic governance.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, the size of the middle class was very small when it came into existence, and the country was dominated by a small powerful feudal elite created by the British rulers to sustain their colonial rule. And the urban middle class remained small for decades. The situation has, however, finally begun to change in the the last decade of 1999-2009 with a combination of increasing urbanization and faster economic expansion that fueled significant job creation in the industrial and services sectors to enable middle class growth.
An ADB report on Asia's rising middle class released this month confirms that Pakistan's middle class has grown to 40% of the population, significantly larger than the Indian middle class of about 25% of its population, and it has been growing faster than India's middle class. The other significant news reported by Wall Street Journal today says the vast majority of what is defined as India's middle class is perched just above $2 a day, making it vulnerable to various shocks. This is also true of Pakistan.
Here are the details of income levels in India, Pakistan and China as reported by ADB:
Pakistan has continued to offer much greater upward mobility to its citizens than neighboring India. Since 1990, China's middle class population has expanded by 61.4%, Pakistan's by 36.5% and India's by 12.8%.
In terms of education, average number of years of schooling in Pakistan is 13 years, 3 years more than India's 10, according to an education comparison published by Newsweek recently. An average Pakistani is, therefore, better educated and more capable of earning higher income than an average Indian.
In terms of absolute numbers in millions of people, China and India are naturally the biggest contributors to the rising population of Asia's middle class that is driving increasing consumption. They are followed by Indonesia and Pakistan vying for the third place.
The ADB report discusses in some detail the impact of Asia's rising middle class on a whole range of social, political and economic developments in the world. The report argues that "Asia’s large population and the rapid expansion of its middle class during a period of global economic rebalancing is fundamentally important as a driver not only of the Asian economy but also the global economy. However greater middle class wealth and consumption is only one factor in the region’s increasing importance. The rise of its middle class is likely to aid not only the growth process, but also result in substantial social, political, and environmental changes. Thus, the contention is that, building on strong growth and continued progress in reducing poverty in Asia, developing a stable middle class requires governments to formulate and implement middle class-friendly policies. In turn, this requires understanding and analyzing the characteristics of the middle class, the factors contributing to its growth, and the various implications—positive and negative—of its rise. These are some of the issues this special chapter addresses".
Here are some of the key points of the ADB report:
1. While 56% of developing Asia’s population, or nearly 1.9 billion people, were already considered part of the middle class based on an absolute definition of per capita consumption of $2–$20 per day in 2008, nearly 1.5 billion Asians were still living on less than $2.0 per day. Moreover, the majority of the Asian middle class still falls in the $2–$4 range, leaving them highly vulnerable to slipping back into poverty due to economic shocks. Thus, for the middle class to become a prominent force it will likely depend on its size and spending levels and characteristics. It will require governments to introduce policies that bolster the incomes of those already in the middle class. It will also require social policies to expand the middle class—such as through greater spending in education and health. Through these, it is possible to build a strong and stable middle class that continues to grow.
2. According to the “political economy” argument, societies with a small middle class are generally extremely polarized, and find it difficult to reach consensus on economic issues; they are overly focused on the redistribution of resources between the elite and the impoverished masses, each of which alternates in controlling political power. Societies with a larger middle class are much less polarized and can more easily reach consensus on a broad range of issues and decisions relevant to economic development (Alesina 1994).
3. Besides helping to reach consensus, Banerjee and Duflo (2008) have discussed three mechanisms through which a large middle class could promote development. First, the middle class may provide the entrepreneurs who create employment and productivity growth in a society. Second, “middle-class values”—that is, the values of accumulation of human capital and savings—are critical to economic growth. And third, with its willingness and ability to pay extra for higher-quality products, the middle class drives demand for high-quality consumer goods, the production of which typically presents increasing returns to scale. This encourages firms to invest in production and marketing, raising income levels for everyone.
4. Middle class is not inimical to the interests of the poor. Indeed, Birdsall (2010) argues that “… in the advanced economies the poor have probably benefited from the rule of law, legal protections, and in general the greater accountability of government that a large and politically independent middle class demands, and from the universal and adequately funded education, health and social insurance programs a middle class wants and finances through the tax system… A focus on the middle class does not exclude a focus on the poor but extends it, including on the grounds that growth that is good for the large majority of people in developing countries is more likely to be economically and politically sustainable, both for economic and political reasons.”
Talking about Pakistan's growing middle class, Professor Rasul Baksh Raees, head of social sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, told the Christian Science Monitor that "the reach and influence of civil society has grown as Pakistan’s middle classes have become more affluent, organized (thanks in no small part to the Internet age), and confident".
The years 2007 and 2008 saw increasing political activism in Pakistan as many members of the nation's newly expanded middle class, most of whom rose to middle class status during Musharraf's economic boom, left the comforts of their homes for the streets to march against the suspension of civil liberties and the firing of Pakistan's chief justice by former President Musharraf. A test of the middle class now is how it responds to the current crises ranging from political instability, poor governance, rising corruption, economic stagnation and the massive flooding that is taking its toll on the nation. At this moment, the greatest need of the hour in Pakistan is greater social activism by the middle class to help their unfortunate fellow citizens devastated by the unprecedented floods sweeping the nation's rural landscape. Early media reports are encouraging, indicating that some Pakistani middle class networks are mobilizing to provide assistance to the flood victims. As the support efforts move from rescue and relief to reconstruction and rehabilitation, my hope is that Pakistan's middle class will be engaged in helping their fellow citizens for the long haul. Such sustained engagement will be a part of Pakistan's defense against religious extremism and radicalization of some in its alienated young population.
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