On the “informal economy”

By | October 20, 2011

From a WSJ review of Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy:

Mr. Neuwirth introduces us to a woman named Jandira who for a decade has peddled coffee and homemade cakes to the unlicensed vendors at São Paulo’s early-morning wholesale market for pirated movies. Her street-corner business, she proudly tells him, has enabled her to buy two cars and a house and to pay her children’s fees at private school. Another of Mr. Neuwirth’s sources, Chinese handbag designer Ethan Zhang, prefers to stay illegal. For him it’s a matter of costs and benefits: “If I want to get a license, then I will need a bank account and an office in an office building.” These are not people who lack the skills to survive through legal employment; they just see no good reason to join the legal economy.

System D is full of surprises. From Linda Chen, who trades counterfeit auto parts, we learn that China has a hierarchy of fake merchandise: The manufacturers of high-quality fakes offer guarantees and take back defective products, but with low-quality fakes it’s caveat emptor. Ogun Dairo buys woodchips from a sawmill and uses them to smoke fish, for sale by street vendors; her unlicensed grill is in an illegal squatter settlement in Lagos, but she buys fish that have been imported from Europe. At the euphemistically named Guangzhou Dashatou Second Hand Trade Center, where Arthur Okafor obtains the pirated mobile phones that he later smuggles into Nigeria, the cash turnover is so high that almost every (unlicensed) kiosk has a battery-powered currency counter.

The review reminds me of a chapter in my dissertation, in which I follow a container of secondhand clothing from the Cotonou port to the used clothes market in the Beninese city, and from the market to the Seme border and then into Nigeria. I show the different regulatory regimes under which batches of the imported used clothing fall – when taxes get paid on them and when not, and how the final retailer in Lagos sometimes actually pay some form of tax on the goods he has in his small stall on Lagos Island – even when secondhand clothing is not legally supposed to be imported or sold in the country (there is a ban on the importation of secondhand clothing into Nigeria). It also reminds me of the importance of ethnography for understanding microeconomic interactions that eventually feed into macroeconomic figures of a country. (Try understanding why Benin would always have a balance of trade deficit without knowing that almost all consumer goods it imports ends up being smuggled into Nigeria.) Of course, the whole idea of the informal economy itself arose from Keith Hart’s ethnographic study of urban slums in Ghana in the 1960s.

Read the review here. H/T to Bunmi Oloruntoba on Twitter.

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