RHI Seminar: Rebecca Simson (The London School of Economics and Political Science)

14 March 2017: Africa’s bourgeoisie of the public service? Public employment and pay in Kenya and Tanzania since independence

Organised by Rural and Environmental History

Tue 14 March 2017 12:15 to 14:15

Venue Leeuwenborch, gebouwnummer 201
Room V72

Africa’s bourgeoisie of the public service? Public employment and pay in Kenya and Tanzania since independence

In 1961 Frantz Fanon scathingly characterised the emerging African elite as a bourgeoisie of the civil service. Many others have since described Africa’s public sector employees as privileged, rent-seeking and excessively powerful in relation to the continent’s under-developed private sector. Is this characterisation accurate? Using data on employment and income from Kenya and Tanzania, this paper aims to situate public sector employees in two African countries within their respective national income distribution at various points in time. It argues that public sector employees did not remain a privileged group for very long after independence in either country. To the detriment of the nascent middle class, politicians deliberately held down formal sector wages between the 1970s and early 1990s. While public sector employees started the postcolonial era as an important share of the middle and upper classes, this share subsequently declined. In 1976 Kenyan public sector employees comprised roughly 44% of those earning an average teacher’s wage or above. This ratio had dropped to 30-35% by 1994 and roughly 22% by 2005/06. In Tanzania the public sector share of the top income decile fell from an estimated 25% in 1969 to 13% in 2011/12. In both countries moreover, public sector-headed households relied on multiple income sources to meet household consumption needs during the economic downturn. Without recourse to secondary incomes from farming, businesses or other employment, public sector-headed households would have seen a considerably larger relative income decline. The corollary to the declining share of public sector employees among high income earners was an increase in the share of private sector employees and business owners at the top of the income distribution. This suggests that after a long teething period, East Africa’s private sector may finally be coming into its own.

More information about Rebecca Simson can be found here.