This blog was authored by Dr Graeme Young.

Our project, “Promoting Inclusive Governance for Informal Workers in Cali, Colombia,” was built on a simple assumption: that inclusive economics requires inclusive politics. This, in some ways, might seem rather obvious. But it can have profound implications for how we think about informality and urban governance as it suggests that if informal workers are to benefit from development, they must be able to participate in making decisions about the policies that have a direct impact on their livelihoods. Exclusion, at its core, is a political issue. Inclusion therefore is as well.

It is important not to be too prescriptive about what, exactly, political inclusion will lead to in practice. This is precisely what should emerge from the political processes that informal workers participate in, and must be specific to the needs, desires, and values of those participating. Still, as our new report discusses, it is possible to outline some core components of what might constitute economic inclusion for street vendors, a key segment of informal workers in cities in the Global South. Six are particularly notable, and these can broadly be classified in three categories.

The first of these categories encompasses essential livelihood requirements. Most fundamentally, economic inclusion means having sufficient income to meet household needs. Informal workers often live in conditions of poverty, and street vending is no guarantee of economic security, particularly when the earnings derived from it must support multiple people. An important complement to adequate income is access to social programs that provide vital public services and forms of public support. These can take many forms, including, but by no means limited to, employment insurance, housing provision and subsidies, and high-quality and publicly funded education and healthcare.

The next category relates to the ability of street vendors to conduct their activities. This means three things in particular: being able to rely on supportive, fair, and consistently applied laws and regulations; having access to space in cities to conduct trade; and having access to financial resources, such as loans and grants, on terms that are fair and reasonable. Informal workers’ activities, by definition, fall in at least some ways outside of legal and regulatory structures, a fact that makes them vulnerable to various forms of harassment, repression, coercion, exploitation, and neglect. They must be able to enjoy basic protections and benefits to be able to work in decent conditions.

But economic inclusion means more than simply allowing street vendors to engage in their activities in more favourable circumstances. It also means providing access to opportunities for formal employment. Many people who engage in informal economic activity do so out of necessity rather than by choice, and while it would be wrong to assume that all informal workers would prefer a formal job, adequate opportunities must be available for those who would wish to take advantage of them. Accommodating or even supporting informal workers is no substitute to the pursuit of full employment under decent conditions.

Such a multidimensional understanding of economic inclusion suggests that there is considerable scope for the state to improve the lives of street vendors. Again, what exactly a state should do to promote economic inclusion should come out of a political process, but whatever the specifics might be, it is likely that a new social contract will need to be established between informal workers and the state, one that rests on a foundation of a concrete and enforceable set of rights that ensure that informal workers can live and conduct their livelihood activities in dignity, free from poverty, and unencumbered by a hostile or indifferent state. None of this should be taken to suggest that politics should be removed from the governance of informal economic activity; in fact, this governance needs to be re-politicized, providing space for diverging, sometimes conflicting, interests to be addressed and more sustainable, just, and inclusive policies to emerge through processes of dialogue and debate. Divisions—between vendors and the state, between vendors and formal businesses, even between vendors themselves—are unlikely to disappear, as political allegiances, class, competition, values, individual or group interests, and personal circumstances will inform understandings of justice and views of how social, economic, and political life can and should be structured. But a better future is still possible. That is the promise of democracy.


We are particularly grateful to our colleagues in Colombia for the great efforts that they put into this work, which was funded through SHLC’s Capacity Development Acceleration Fund. SHLC has been funded within the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) grant ES/PO11020/1.