Can too much formalization be bad for poverty alleviation?

Earlier this year, there was an interesting article which pointed out the important role the informal sector plays in developing countries, particularly on the African continent.

Apart from being over-financialised, which reduces the incentives to create “real jobs” the other structural problem facing the South African economy is its over-formalisation. The informal sector accounts for just 15% of South African jobs, compared to 70-80% in East Africa, for example.

The reason, again, hearkens back to the white-dominated economy that apartheid created, where the majority black population was only valuable for their labour, so any entrepreneurial self-sufficiency in the black community was stifled, in order to channel them into the wage economy.
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The over-formalisation presents a situation where a mama mboga (roadside vegetable seller) is expected to a get a food handling inspection license, pay corporate tax, pay the official minimum wage and provide health insurance for her assistant before being allowed to open a (physical) shop.

There is no space in such an economy for East Africa’s bodaboda or  Nigerian okada (motorcycle “taxi”) riders or second-hand goods sellers, and so, no wriggle room to quickly accommodate the mostly black young people coming of age every year.

Over-financialisation means there’s little pressure to create formal sector jobs, and over-formalisation means there’s little ability to create informal sector jobs.

In contrast, the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics has evidence that the bulk of the new jobs being created each quarter are from the so called ‘informal economy’ rather than the traditional formal sectors such as the civil service or large established private companies.

The informal economy’s comparitive weakness has always been its irregularity as compared to the predictable structure of teh formal, but here, as thousands of young people enter the workforce, this allows it to accommodate their income generation demands. Opportunity abounds for the hustler and the street vendor and low barriers to entry mean that anyone can earn a little something.

Perhaps its time for us to shift our perspective when we consider the informal sector, and consider its value and role in society with an unprejudiced eye. While numerous efforts are being made to address the dual challenges of unemployment and the demographic dividend, they will not happen overnight. The informal economy has clearly shown its persistence, resilience and importance for livelihoods wherever there has been significant need for development. Can we meet it halfway and speed up the time it would take to lift millions out of poverty?

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