Decolonizing Africa’s Informal Economy

Photo taken by Michael Kimani at Busia border, Uganda and Kenya, December 2015

I’ve been reviewing the seminal literature on decolonization as it relates to my professional practice, all in various books from the library – Dr Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall’s Decolonizing Design Innovation; Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodology; Kagendo Mutua and BB Swadener’s Decolonizing Research in Cross-Cultural Contexts; specific articles such as Dr. Pranee Liamputtong’s Cross-Cultural Research and Qualitative Inquiry, as well as more contemporary accounts published by the Decolonizing Design collective and the AIGA.

As I reflected on my readings over the past week, it seemed to me that there were more of us articulating the need for decolonizing our lenses for evaluating the operating environment of emerging economies without ever having framed it so. In my own case, I’ve been writing on the need to adapt design tools developed in Chicago and Palo Alto for the sub Saharan African context for more than a decade now, and in my practice that is exactly what I’ve done. But until I was advised to read up more on the concept of decolonization of knowledge by one of the professors, I had no idea that this was the theoretical framework behind what I was saying and doing in practice.

Reviewing the literature was eye-opening to me, and reminded me of Cornell Professor Ravi Kanbur’s paper on the informal economy: Mindsets, Trends, and the Informal Economy. A snippet I reference often is as follows (pg 5):

The administrative mindset on informality has somewhat more complex roots. It is best illustrated by a strand of the dual economy literature which goes back to colonial times. Indeed, the term “dual economy” was coined by the Dutch anthropologist and colonial administrator J. H. Boeke in his characterization of the economy of the Dutch East Indies. The distinction here was between those activities that fell under the purview of colonial rules and regulations, and those activities that were beyond the legal and administrative reach of the colonial government.

My reading of the colonial administrative literature brings to mind the notion of a wall which separates the formal from the informal. On this side of the wall is the well-ordered colonial state, subject to a set of laws and regulations, managed by its administrators and officials. On that side of the wall is the (mostly native) informal economy, ill understood and misunderstood by colonial policy makers. It is perceived to be chaotic, disorganized, with criminal elements.

The colonial yoke has been lifted but not the mindset. Post-colonial administrators the world over, particularly at the local level, appear to have the same mindset as their colonial predecessors. Informality is a symbol of underdevelopment, a nuisance to be swept away and kept out of sight in the modernizing path of the national economy. This obviously meshes conveniently with the analytical mindset which sees informality as in any case dwindling with development.

It is clear from Dr Kanbur’s words that he too talks about the need to decolonize our mindset regarding the informal economy and its role and relevance, without necessarily framing it within the literature of decolonization. And, it is clear that what I’d been saying of late in recent years about the need to recognize the informal economy in sub Saharan Africa as a commercial operating environment in its own right, falls under this same umbrella of thinking.

Though I still have a long way to go in articulating and documenting this within the streams of relevant academic thought, I feel confident enough to state that the time has come to decolonize the informal economy, particularly in the African context, where it is less of a shadowy grey illicit activity as it tends to be in the formal advanced economies of the OECD, and more a matter of the local indigenous economy being framed by the lenses of colonial history.

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