Recent political transitions around the world have cast doubt on arguments about the socioeconomic preconditions for democracy. A democratic political regime has long been regarded as an attribute of high-income, industrialized economies. Yet new scholarship has revised this law by observing that “third wave” democracies have been installed in both rich and poor countries. We can only do justice to this topic, however, by testing the same relationship at a micro-level. Are poor people any more or less attached to democracy than rich people? Are they any more or less likely to act as democratic citizens?
This paper explores the relationship of poor people to democratic citizenship in sub-Saharan Africa. Its findings are paradoxical. On one hand, poor people in Africa are clearly dissatisfied with the quality of governance provided by elected national leaders. On the other hand, they prefer to by-pass the formal channels of the democratic state in attempting to redress political grievances. Instead, the poor majority – especially the older, rural poor – remains embedded in informal relations of patron-clientelism. Not only do poorer people lack certain key capabilities of democratic citizenship; they have yet to find ways to make the institutions of democracy work in their favor.