Global South’s Middle Class is Increasing Prosperity

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


The global middle class is on the rise – and this is creating both challenges and opportunities. As poverty rates have come down across the global South, many countries have seen a rise in the proportion of their population categorized as “middle class”. Globally, being middle class is defined as a person able to consume between US $4 a day and US $13 a day (ILO).

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), most of this growth will be in Asia and the region will soon make up 66 per cent of the world’s middle class. Historical experience shows that members of the middle class quickly become absorbed in spending their accumulated capital on housing, equipment, industry and business, health and education. In countries with a growing middle class, policy makers need to show a strong interest in creating stable economic conditions to encourage this expanding consumption and domestic demand, the OECD advises.

Growth of the world’s middle class took off after 2001, with an additional 400 million workers joining this group. The McKinsey group of consultants found the total number reached 2 billion in a dozen “emerging nations” in 2010, collectively spending US $6.9 trillion every year (McKinsey).

Forecasters predict a further increase in the middle class across the global South will bring with it a surge in consumption (a combination of spending and demand). Areas being highlighted by various studies and reports include China’s small and mid-size cities, other areas of East Asia and Africa.

Middle class spending in these dozen emerging nations could reach US $20 trillion during the next decade – twice the amount of consumption occurring in the United States right now (McKinsey).

The result is a re-shaping of populations, with growing numbers of people now neither rich nor desperately poor, but landing in the middle of the income distribution.

And local competitors in the global South are fighting hard for these consumers on their own turf.

The Hangzhou Wahaha ( beverage maker in China has been able to compete against multinationals such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, according to McKinsey. It has turned itself into a US $5.2 billion business using a multi-pronged strategy: targeting rural areas, catering to local needs, keeping costs low and positioning itself as the patriotic choice.

And this change is also occurring in Africa, where a growing middle class is fuelling sales of refrigerators, television sets, mobile phones, motors and automobiles across the continent, according to the OECD. In Ghana, for example, car and motorcycle ownership has risen by 81 per cent since 2006.

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa’s middle class has reached 34 per cent of the population, or 350 million people. In 1980, it was 126 million people, or 27 per cent of the population.

Countries with the largest middle classes in Africa include Tunisia and Morocco, while Liberia and Burundi have the smallest number of people in the middle class.

The economic growth that is fuelling this middle-class surge is coming from a combination of increasing investment in the services sector, the tapping of the natural resource sector and better economic policies in the past two decades. Africa’s middle class is driving growth in the private sector and boosting demand for goods and services, most often also provided by the private sector.

“The liberalization of African economies has resulted in improved efficiencies and led to a rapid growth in the service sector, which has spurred the growth of the middle class,” Lawrence Bategeka, a principal researcher at the Uganda-based Economic Policy Research Centre, told The East African newspaper.

How important the middle class is to increasing consumption levels can be seen in the cases of Brazil and South Korea.

According to the OECD, both countries had similar income levels and growth rates in the 1960s. But by the 1980s, high income inequality in Brazil capped the middle class at 29 per cent of the population. In South Korea in the 1980s, the middle class population reached 53 per cent. This larger middle class population enabled South Korea to switch from an export-driven growth strategy to domestic consumption.

While Brazil wasn’t able to do this at the time, it has since made impressive gains in reducing poverty – from 40 per cent of the population in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2009. This has seen the middle class grow to 52 per cent of the population and boosted domestic consumption.

While a rising middle class in the global South is good news for improving human development and living standards, the OECD found much of the new middle class was vulnerable and could easily slip out of that category. They also often lacked enough income to purchase more expensive durable goods such as automobiles (OECD Yearbook 2012).

The success of this fragile but growing middle class will be key to how well the global economy fares in the coming years.

A new report by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) argues that the global South’s growing middle classes are just the thing to spur growth across the wider world economy.

“Over time, this emerging middle-class could give a much needed push to more balanced global growth by boosting consumption, particularly in poorer parts of the developing world,” said Steven Kapsos, one of the authors of the report.

In Indonesia, an example of the economic impact of the middle class trend in action can be seen in the surging life insurance business.

Association of Indonesian Life Insurance Companies (AAJI) chairman Hendrisman Rahim believes the growing middle class are potential customers for the country’s thriving life insurance industry.

“They are the ones who have the need to be insured and can afford to purchase a policy. Extremely rich people are financially capable [of buying], but may not have the need. Extremely poor people have the need, but require financial assistance to be insured,” he said to the Jakarta Post.

As the Indonesian middle class increases, the life insurance industry is expecting to see revenue rise by 30 per cent in 2013.


1) The $10 Trillion Dollar Prize by Michael J. Silverstein. Website:

2) The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the Middle Class in Africa. Website:

3) McKinsey Quarterly: Capturing the world’s emerging middle class. Website:

4) OECD Observer: An emerging middle class by Mario Pezzini. Website:

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London Edit

31 July 2013

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