International Street Vendors Day

13 November 2015 - 4:45pm
War on Want in the news

This report from Saranel Benjamin, Senior Programme Officer (Informal Economy) at War on Want, to mark International Street Vendors Day on 14 November 2015, first featured in the New Internationalist.

What does it mean to build a ‘world-class’ city?

Today, in cities like Johannesburg, Lusaka and Harare, it means exclusion; disregarding a whole section of society and making people invisible.

Every day, slum-dwellers and informal traders have to fight for their right to live and work in the city. Every day they face evictions, harassment and violent abuse as sub-Saharan African governments and corporate elites push ahead with their idea of ‘world class’.

New legislation in Kenya recognizes the country's street vendors and informal workers. The Wandering Angel under a Creative Commons Licence

Making ends meet

Informal workers account for 1.8 billion of the world’s population. These are the self-employed, the resourceful peddlers and hustlers, hawkers and street vendors who try hard to make ends meet, with no help from their governments, and pit their will and wits at street markets and unlicensed bazaars around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, 7 out of 10 people are involved in informal work – the majority are women. They invariably live in informal shack settlements in and around urban centres.

Yet, despite the majority of the population being engaged in informal work, they still remain invisible; in a constant fight for their right to live and work in the city. ‘World-class’ cities, it would appear, have no place for the bustling street vendors, hawkers and marketers.

A disorderly nuisance

Full-time waged or salaried employment is still the exception rather than the rule in the developing world. Yet despite the long-established informal sector, the formal sector has always taken precedence in the global economy. It is considered a disciplined and organised space, where the contributions made by those employed in formal jobs is greatly valued.

Flip the coin, and the informal economy is seen as nothing more than a safety net for the unemployed until they find formal employment. This framing of the informal economy has never allowed it to be taken seriously. Its contribution to national economies is derided, considered negligible, and its existence seen only in relation to the formal economy. Its ‘disorderly’ nature seen simply as a nuisance.

The only means of survival

However, a recent study by War on Want found that more people aged between 20 and 40 years old were entering the informal economy in sub-Saharan Africa. The study also found that people were staying in the informal economy for over 10 years, suggesting that in the current global economic context, the informal economy is the only viable option for survival for many people. 

How long, then, can 1.8 billion people (and growing) be ignored?

The stubbornness and failure of governments to recognize this sector means the people who try to earn a living through informal trade are increasingly vulnerable. Harassment, discrimination and abuse of informal traders is rife, with women bearing the brunt. Violent evictions of informal traders from urban centres is commonplace, often leading to the confiscation of their goods.

Meanwhile, city planners continue to squeeze informal traders out of town centres, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Food, health and school

As a consequence, informal traders barely make enough money to keep themselves above the poverty line, forcing them to engage in risky coping strategies to ensure the well-being of their families. These include cutting back on food consumption and doing away with healthcare, to ensure they can afford to feed the family and keep their children in school.

In times of crisis, though, it is girls that are often withdrawn from schooling first, often to assist with domestic responsibilities in the home or to assist their parents in their informal trading.

New legislation

However, there is some good news. In Kenya, the Kenyan National Alliance of Street Vendors and Informal Traders (KENASVIT) has successfully lobbied for legislation that recognizes informal traders and street vendors, making Kenya the first sub-Saharan African country to do so. Now KENASVIT is working on getting the legislation implemented at all levels of government.

With the legislation and negotiated agreements in place, informal traders face less harassment, fewer evictions and they are now taken into account when towns and cities are being planned. Perhaps Kenya can show the world that peddlers and hustlers, hawkers and street vendors do have a rightful place in any ‘world-class’ city.

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