This blog was authored by Dr Graeme Young.

International projects that seek to address complex problems can, unsurprisingly, encounter unexpected challenges. Adaptability is often a virtue in efforts to effect positive change, particularly when prospects for success are, despite one’s best efforts, so dependent on external circumstances. One should expect one’s best-laid plans to be disrupted, and for events to unfold in a way that is confounding, sometimes profoundly so. Progress has never been easy. It would be naïve to expect otherwise. 

Our project, “Promoting Inclusive Governance for Informal Workers in Cali, Colombia,” provided ample opportunities to reflect on the significance of circumstance in international development work. As the title suggests, what our project aimed to do is to find ways to allow informal street vendors in Cali to be involved in making decisions about the policies that shape their livelihoods. Street vendors, in Cali and in cities around the world, are a uniquely marginalized group, and a lack of political power often compounds economic vulnerability by denying opportunities for representation and voice, leading to policies that are inappropriate, inadequate, negligent, or even harmful that vendors have little ability to change. The key to addressing economic vulnerability, we therefore believe, is political empowerment, and the way we decided to put this into practice in Cali was to try to set up a participatory policymaking process that would be inclusive, sustainable, and, we hoped, replicable beyond the city. That the extent to which it would be possible to facilitate the political and economic inclusion of street vendors would always depend on the right political conditions is, in theory, unsurprising; that these conditions could change so significantly is, in practice, more remarkable. Yet for all of the practical challenges that this posed, it helped to highlight important theoretical points about the conditions that must be present to allow for political—and thereby economic—inclusion in the informal economy. We have explored these in detail in our new report, but they perhaps deserve further comment here.

First, and most fundamentally, open, democratic structures and processes must be in place for any meaningful form of inclusion to take place. These must not be taken for granted. Colombia, where our project was based, is a democracy, if an imperfect one. The processes that could possibly facilitate meaningful forms of inclusion for informal workers are evidently absent, but the broad institutional structures that exist are more conducive to allowing these to emerge than they are in more authoritarian states. Democracy is not a binary concept; it can always be improved, in Colombia and elsewhere. Such improvements are essential for the empowerment of informal workers.

Basic state capacity is also essential. If political inclusion is to lead to economic inclusion, the state must be able to implement the policies that arise out of political processes. But while the ability of the state to effectively govern informal economic activity should not be assumed, it should also not be assumed that poor governance is always the result of incapacity. The absence of a well funded, well functioning social safety net can certainly limit effective governance, but it might also be the consequence of poor governance itself. And some forms of improved governance, such as ending the punitive use of force against informal workers, have nothing to do with state capacity. The simple and unfortunate fact is that some governments may have little interest in inclusion, and some may indeed have a great deal of interest in the continued marginalization of informal workers. This serves as a major impediment to creating more open and durable decision-making structures. It also makes them even more necessary.

Beyond these basic conditions for political inclusion, two more stand out. The first of these surrounds having suitable institutional spaces that make dialogue and cooperation possible. Second is the political will to promote—or even just allow—inclusion, to create and sustain the processes in which inclusion occurs, and to act on their outcomes. This final condition, unfortunately, disappeared during our project, first as a result of how the state responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was already underway when our project began, and later due to the protests that swept through Colombia from April 2021. While COVID-19 obviously had a profound impact on the priorities and activities of governments around the world, the relevant authorities in our project did not act in ways that were responsive to the needs of informal workers or seek to include them more meaningfully in decision making. The protests likely diminished trust further and at least temporarily suspended the possibility for collaboration. Significantly, they were, at their core, the result of long-standing failures in governance, further underscoring the importance of more open and responsive politics that represent and respond to people’s basic needs and interests. An opportunity exists for something better. The question is whether governments will take it.

The four conditions for political inclusion outlined here are, sadly, rarely found together, a fact that explains the appalling record of the treatment of informal workers around the world. And, as our project shows, even where and when they may be present, they can be impermanent and imperfect. But this is no reason for despondency: research, organization, and advocacy can still take place, alliances can be built, and ideas can be developed, shared, and adopted from elsewhere. Our project engaged in many of these activities, conducting a survey of street vendors, sharing and analyzing proposals put forward by vendors’ organizations, and holding a workshop on informal work and public policy to explore these themes in a broader international context. In short, preparations can be made for when the right conditions return, and these conditions can be encouraged by the right forms of political engagement. Change does not happen overnight. To build something sustainable, something that becomes so ingrained in the fabric of political life that it cannot vanish so suddenly and capriciously, takes time. Efforts to promote inclusion for informal workers are only beginning. Further setbacks will come, but they cannot, and will not, deter us.


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.