Friday, June 10, 2011

sense and nonsense

Here's the sensible thing: E. T. Mensah, Ghana's Minister for Employment and Social Welfare and a newly installed member of the governing board of the International Labour Organization, has suggested that the UN group "recognise the potential of the huge informal economy in Africa and formulate strategies that would halt its marginalization." This is good news. The ILO is a crucially important organization for the world's workers, but it has participated in the demonization of the informal economy, and that has to stop.

Now here's the nonsense, also from Ghana: writing on the web site Ghanaweb, a commenter laments that "A white person arriving in Ghana for the first time will experience culture shock because what he will see is diametrically opposed to what he is used to in his country." Among the shocks he cites when people first arrive in Accra: "Existing pavements are often occupied by hawkers. People are, however, understanding that hawkers' need to earn a living but it becomes a culture shock for many foreign visitors. Soon visitors will no longer see hawkers trading in traffic and near pavements because the metropolitan councils, in their eagerness to beautify the city, no longer allow hawkers to trade in the streets." This raises an important series of questions: what is so ugly about street hawkers? Why does development and beautification have to be designed or dedicated to pleasing or mimicking outsiders? Why can't Africa develop its own market institutions that serve Africans? Why not a little culture shock among friends?

smells like shanzhai spirit

Essential reading for anyone who thinks the economic underground can't be innovative:  

Jan Chipchase, writing in The Atlantic, extols the impact of shanzhai products (shanzhai is the modern Chinese street slang for cloned or pirated knockoffs of big-name brands).

As Chipchase reports, Chinese firms sell 1.6 billion phones a year--and shanzhai producers "are starting to outpace the markets that they originally aspired to." He adds, "They're not satisfied with just copying. Shanzhai manufacturers are actually driving experimentation in the marketplace." One example: a phone that can take two SIM cards--a boon in places where service is spotty and you need two lines. He also suggests that these firms in the economic underground get their products from R&D to retail stores amazingly quickly.

The shanzhai 'hiPhone' may not be as good as the genuine iPhone, but it's far cheaper--making it a reasonable choice for people who can't afford the real thing but want some reflection of its looks and functionality. Far from being a drag on development, the existence of the informal economy is helping to bridge the digital divide.