The formal sector and economic development: A lesson from marketing

Pursuing the thoughts introduced in the previous post further, I looked up the original reference on “formalization of the informal sector”1.

Alan Gelb, et al. 2009. “To Formalize or Not to Formalize? Comparisons of Microenterprise Data from Southern and East Africa.” CGD Working Paper 175

“…in East Africa, weak enforcement of tax payment and no significant difference in access to services between formal and  informal firms means that these variables do not explain the allocation of firms across the informal-formal divide.

We conclude that in countries with weak business environments, informal firms are just as likely as formal firms to increase their productivity as they grow.

Thus,  interventions to increase productivity and lower the cost of formality may be helpful.”

The question comes back to what is the benefit of formalizing when the costs associated with it do not offer any additional services, such as reliable electricity, for instance, that offset the investment.

Formality only becomes a barrier when new market opportunities require paperwork – a formal sector customer, or a chance to export.

“…improvements in the business environment in East Africa are potentially more valuable in changing the balance of benefits and costs from formalization, and so encouraging small firms to formalize and grow.”

Really, what seems to be the case is that instead of pushing individual entrepreneurs to formalize, it is their operating environment that must be tweaked in order to attract them towards formalization. As long as there’s little difference between the formal and informal sectors of the economy, there is no incentive to invest in the relatively expensive and cumbersome process.

The key insight here is that the current day efforts to push towards formalization, must instead transform into a pull towards formality.

If indeed we’re now seeing the end-users as customers of our services, then we must market the benefits in order to attract them. This has implications for the durability, and thus, sustainability of programs and initiatives, beyond the life of the project.

With the nuanced shift in perspective offered by Gelb et al, we can also see the role that human centered design can play in this journey. Who better to identify what customers’ need and want?

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