Monday, March 30, 2009

police math

Authorities in Aberdeen, Scotland are making noise about an operation to get knock-offs and pirate goods off the streets. According to this article from The Press and Journal, they claim to have seized £40,000 in fakes.

But the math is a bit off.

The article cites "337 pirated DVDs, worth around £3,370." That would be £10 each. And it mentions another 99 DVDs with a street value of £1,485--or £15 per. Yet senior Aberdeen trading standards officer Del Henderson says these DVDs are "just not worth the £3 or so."

Seems like the police are learning from the street sellers and pumping up the value of the goods they've confiscated. Or maybe some of those DVDs are actually real.

a promising development

It's sad that India's Thane Muncipality (just outside Mumbai) wasted more than a million dollars on various schemes to get street hawkers to relocate to indoor malls. But now the municipality is moving towards a much better model, The Times of India reports.
The corporation is now toying with the idea of providing open air markets in plots of land reserved for municipal markets. The proposal does not involve huge expenses ... as no major construction is required in it. There is also a distinct possibility of it succeeding in the long run as the environment of the open air market will he like that of hawking on public places.
That sounds promising.

One potential problem:
The corporation is also considering leasing out the markets to private parties on annual rental basis for fixed period.
Privatization, which could very easily lead to higher rents, could destroy the plan before it starts.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Chennai, India (the former Madras) did something notable in its planning for a new urban development scheme. It consulted with informal workers. Nithya Raman, from the Centre for Development Finance, explains all in an op-ed from Express India:

Workers asked that evictions of slum-dwellers immediately cease, and that funds allocated for the urban poor be used to provide infrastructure, services and tenure in existing slum settlements rather than to construct alternative housing on the outskirts of the city. They asked for the government to prioritise the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and users of public transport over the needs of automobile and motorcycle owners. They also asked that the government designate spaces for them to work within the city, such as spaces in markets and on roadsides for street-vendors, and to provide them services like drinking water, toilets, and crèches in these work spaces. If such projects are included in the new city development plan, it will already mark a significant departure from the city’s traditional planning priorities.

However, a number of the things that they suggested had absolutely nothing to do with infrastructure or city development as conceived by the JNNURM, and yet, were central to workers’ vision of a better city.Workers asked for access to finance and social security benefits and better quality, better-paid jobs. They wanted medical insurance, well functioning welfare boards, and provisions for retirement benefits. They wanted access to low-interest loans, so that they could avoid usurious moneylenders. They wanted the police to stop harassing them at their workplaces. They also wanted the push towards privatising municipal services to end, because privatisation meant a decrease in the availability of formal sector, decently paid work.

Workers also demanded changes in the government’s urban development policies that would give more power to citizens. They asked that the government provide complete information to city residents about all urban infrastructure projects. They also demanded that projects be approved through a genuinely consultative process, and that the final approvals for urban infrastructure projects should rest with local ward sabhas or gram sabhas. Why was this so central to their demands? Because urban infrastructure projects inevitably require government land, and result in the displacement of poor slum dwellers who squat on that land.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The latest London crime wave...

... "tacky trinket stalls."

The Evening Standard reports on a plan to crack down on "tacky trinket stalls, scruffy-looking pitches and kiss-me-quick tat." The Westminster council wants the power to prevent stall operators from passing pitches on to their children - reversing a centuries-old tradition.

Records show stalls have been in the West End since the 16th century, with Shakespeare referring to "costermongers". Wally Watson, chairman of West End Street Traders, said the stalls in Oxford Street had been there for at least 200 years. The City of Westminister Bill would give new powers for council officers to refuse a street trading licence, and give them greater control over location of stalls. It would also end the right of appeal to Crown Court in cases of disputes.
Street sellers actually helped make Shakespeare famous. His plays had faded from public consciousness a century after his death, and a discounting war, in which dueling publishers pushed his plays to street hawkers for a penny a copy, helped revive his popularity in the 1730s.

Note what a Mark Impleton, a waffle seller who has run his stall for 27 years, told the Standard:
"All the huts we operate from are shabby and rotting but the council will not give us planning permission to update them or change them. Meanwhile they complain that we look shabby. What do they expect us to do? It's a vicious circle."

where selling ice cream is a crime

Singapore, that's where. After complaints from a local merchants association, Singapore is cracking down on ice cream hawkers on Orchard Road, The Straits Times reports.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) has also stepped up warnings against roadside pedlars hawking sundries from tissue paper to cheap wallets, belts, toys and handbags. Their presence turns Singapore's premier shopping belt into a low-class 'pasar malam', or night bazaar, along with the buskers and ear-piercing road shows, the Orchard Road Business Association complained recently.

Tissue paper? Ice cream? Serious crimes, don't you think.

And how's this for a Catch 22: The government says these peddlers don't have licenses to operate on Orchard Road, but the truth is that it's impossible to get a new hawkers' license for that location. The only people who qualify to sell on Orchard Road got their licenses before 1974--and only 35 of those licenses still exist.

Monday, March 16, 2009

the wsj endorses the informal

An excellent article on the power of the informal from, of all places, The Wall Street Journal.

I hope the link remains viable.

Tip o' the hat to: Emeka, Andrew, George & Ringo.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

let the informal rule the night

Jaime Lerner, former Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, which has been hailed as one of the world's greenest and most forward-thinking cities, gives The Hindu a sensible suggestion to improve the urban environment in the evenings: "Allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6 p.m. That will inject life into the city, with a formal-informal equation."

I've been thinking the same thing about Michael Bloomberg's proposal to turn Times Square into a pedestrian area: only if he allows hawkers and other informal merchants to operate on the streets.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


In China, as in much of the world, the business of recycling is informal. The goods they recycle may come from formal firms, but they wind up being processed by people in the shadow economy. The New York Times reports on the crash in prices that is killing the recycling business in Beijing.

Towards the end of the article there's an anecdote from Bajiacun, which the reporter describes as "a village built on trash on the outskirts of Beijing, where hundreds of people earn a living from--and live among--other people's castoffs."

This puts me in mind of Lagos, Nigeria and the garbage dump in Ojota. And it also makes me think of the informal recyclers of a different era.

My question now: is there a way for the formal and informal to work together here? If, where it is technologically feasible, governments required all paper and plastic and glass to be made from used paper and plastic and glass, would the market pick back up and the informal recyclers again be able to do business?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

death of a village?

The Lagos State Government has announced an agreement to move Otigba Computer Village from the valuable and central area of Ikeja to Gatankowa, which on the far outskirts of town near the border with Ogun State. Business Day has details.

This could be a terrible thing for the market, which now is in the somewhat upscale area of Ikeja and is not far from the airport. Check out the statistics the article cites:
While formal market figures for computer sales in Nigeria are put at between 250,000 and 300,000 desktops and laptops yearly, it is estimated that for every computer sold in the formal market, 15 are sold in the informal market here. That would put informal market figures at about 3.7 million. Industry watchers say well over half of the informal market business is done in the Ikeja Computer Village.
Pushing the market out of town, getting rid of the hawkers who surround the market: this could do real damage to that trade. What's wrong with working with the market association to professionalize and improve security right where it is?

not good enough for the Pope?

Pope Benedict is coming to Cameroon. So what does the government there do? As Reuters reports:
Cameroonian security forces have smashed up the street stalls, where thousands of people earn a living, to give the capital Yaounde a face-lift for a visit by Pope Benedict next week....Police beat youths and stallholders at the weekend on Yaounde's Avenue Kennedy, where many hawkers sell cell phones and other electrical items imported from Dubai, witnesses said. "I saw gendarmes and police chasing after fellow Cameroonians, beating them up with such ferocity and smashing their goods," said a Cameroon Telecommunications company worker, who watched from a third storey window as police cleared stalls near Avenue Kennedy on Saturday.
It is, indeed, an ugly world. Not because of what the Pope might have seen, but because of what the government has done to ensure that he would see nothing.

Monday, March 9, 2009

the informal grows while the formal declines

Brazil's informal economy grew 11 percent in January 2009 compared to 2008 levels. At the same time, the formal economy lost 1.6 percent of its regular formal jobs. Since October, the number of informal workers grew by 14.2 percent to 709,000. These are some of the stats from a new Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics report. The Latin American Herald Tribune offers brief coverage.

eat on the street

Here's the skinny on where to go in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, courtesy of The Star. Some of the food hawkers are businesses that have been in the same family for several generations. I'm hungry just from reading.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

the resilience of an informal market



and after

The Guardian offers a slideshow of the possibilities, destruction due to fire, and quick efforts at rebirth of Owino Market in Kampala, Uganda.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

lagos lobotomy

Well at least they are honest about their agenda.

After a demolition in the massive informal market at Oshodi (the photo at the top of this blog illustrates the dynamism and pace of business there), one writer in the Lagos, Nigeria newspaper Business Day reveals the truth:
"Oshodi is also becoming the haven of elites. But Oshodi’s transformation right now is not turning in the direction of living quarters for elites as in the case of Maroko [a longstanding low income community on the Lekki peninsula that was illegally driven out to create more land for the rich] but a major elitist business hub."
To qualify for a stall in the new 'elitist business hub,' a merchant has to pay 1.8 million Naira (approx. $12,000) for a 10 year lease, or, at least a 20 percent down payment plus 30,000 Naira a month (approx. $200) thereafter. Few of the prior merchants can afford that.

I understand cleaning up Oshodi, which can be cramped and dirty and threatening. But simply replacing one group of merchants with the elites, and using publicly sponsored demolitions to do it?


the malaysian model

I'm not endorsing every detail of the project, but the Kuala Lumpur government has come up with a plan to work with hawkers and street sellers to create better conditions in the city. The Star has details.

The street vendors seem genuinely pleased. "We have been wanting this for a long time and we we see it as a moral victory," Federal Territories Malay Hawkers & Small Traders Association president Bahrin A. Razak said. "It is no easy task managing hawkers, especially when one has to deal with some 80,000 hawkers – both legal and illegal – and that’s not counting the assistants and cooks." Indian Petty Traders Association Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya president Jothy Appalasamy said the move would bring order to an already chaotic situation in the city. "It is a moral boost for us as shoppers are not the only ones who want to shop in nice and comfortable conditions, but hawkers like to do business in comfortable conditions too," Jothy said.

Rio regression

I missed this when it first ran. The new Rio de Janeiro Mayor, Eduardo Paes, who took office on Jan 1, have vowed a Rudy Giuliani-like 'zero tolerance' approach to crime. So where did he start: by harassing and arresting street vendors. The Miami Herald has details. "I've been selling books here for 40 years," said Rubem da Consigao, 71, a wisp of a man whose small folding table held 100 used volumes in the posh Ipanema neighborhood. "Then last week, the police came, said I didn't have a vendor's license, took my books and said they would burn them. This country is full of thieves - if they take the bread from my hand, there is going to be one more."

As always in history, the elites push blame onto peddlers and hawkers. Yet these folks are only small businesspeople trying to earn and survive. If Paes wants to go after the real criminals, he should start with the corrupt police. And with violent criminals. Street vendors actually help keep the city safe. It's the Oscar Newman defensible space theory: The more eyes and ears (meaning people) on the streets, the safer the streets.