The emergence of a middle class has been identified as an important factor driving economic and political transitions in Asia and Africa. Class has been 'happening' in the broader Pacific region1 for some time, as Gewertz and Errington (1999:2) observed of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Nevertheless, to date, little systematic policy attention has been given to questions of class. We believe that the concept of an emerging middle class provides a useful entry point for understanding significant developmental and political transformations in Timor-Leste and Melanesia and is important for informing development policies. However, in order to explore the potential consequences that an emergent middle class may have, it is necessary to first consider how such a class can be identified in the region. We have chosen to focus on Timor-Leste, PNG and Solomon Islands because these countries are undergoing comparable social and economic transitions, many of which correlate strongly with the emergence of a middle class. Such changes include rapid economic growth driven by resource booms in Timor-Leste and PNG, associated formalisation of regional economies, deepening urbanisation, increasing social integration with metropolitan powers through growing diaspora communities, changing consumption patterns, and the transformative impacts of social media following recent internet and mobile telephone penetration.
This paper has three substantive sections. First, it considers contemporary discussions of class and development in Asia and other developing regions. Second, the paper develops a multidimensional framework for identifying an emergent middle class, drawing on a range of economic, political and social criteria. Finally, the paper uses these criteria to examine recent developments in each of three case study countries and then draws some conclusions on the developmental and political significance of an emergent middle class in the broader Pacific region with a view to establishing a longer term research agenda.