Everyday Africa and the theory of informality

Building on his fieldwork in Ghana, Keith Hart coined the ‘informal sector’ concept in 1971 opening with it a whole field of economics. Thirty years later, he publicly confesses he has created a monster: “I have often wondered if it [the ‘informal sector’ concept] has advanced or retarded out understanding of development” (Hart, 2010:380). This acknowledgment announces the concept’s own death, or at least the urgent need to redefine it. What in the 1970s was celebrated for recognizing a shadow and sustaining economy that had previously been out of scope of analysts; in the 2010s ceases to be useful, hindering the understanding of the processes it studies. It is emblematic that it is the concept’s father who signals its death, accusing it of causing more harm than good. Though Hart is not the first to denounce it, whatever he has to say to criticize the concept of informality is more significant than other critic’s stances, especially since he blames the concept of disregarding the magnitude and prevalence of the very dynamics that it was inspired it in the first place. Hart insists that the future of the informal sector was unforeseeable in 1970s: “What happened next could never have been anticipated around 1970: in the name of the free market, deregulation of national capitalism led to the radical informalization of world economy” (Hart, 2010:377). Put short: neoliberalism informalizes.

But de-linking informality from poverty has been very difficult in practice. Though scholars have shown that this is identity is a fallacy (Portes and Castells to name a few), the association of informality with poverty continues to be an involuntary, natural assumption in most decision-making and policy circles. Sassen takes a great step forward when she acknowledges that deregularization and informalization are but the same globalized movement, nonetheless she identifies the first as pertaining to the upper classes and the latter to the bottom (Sassen, 2010:85). Hart rightly points out that informality now extends its scope to rich and poor countries, government and business, leaving a question mark over its continuing usefulness today (Hart, 2010:381). He goes deeper assuring that the way informality has been thought of hinders development. “Forty years later, it seems to me that the concept stands in the way of understanding how Africa’s unregulated urban commerce might generate sustained development in the coming half-century” (Hart, 2011). This conclusion advocates for a renewed look of the ‘unregulated urban commerce’, one that is able to see in it strategies for sustained –and sustainable- development.

Everyday life in Africa, and particularly its urban explosion, has triggered both the concept’s nascence and its death. Back to Hart: “I knew that I had sacrificed a lot of what I learned through participant observation to make an impact on the policy-makers. People’s lives were subsumed under huge collective abstractions. Now I want to return to that level of concreteness within a bigger picture than I was capable of at the beginning” (Hart, 2011). This conclusion is more than a mere claim on the communication difficulties between ethnographic knowledge and economic jargon; it is also a calling for a better understanding of everyday Africa.

The ‘informal sector’ is not really a sector because it does not lie in a specific closed realm. It is more a mode of doing things people enter and leave voluntarily and even unconsciously within every single day. “The formal and informal economies appear to be separate entities because of the use of the term sector. This gives the impression that the two are located in different places, like agriculture and manufacturing, whereas both the bureaucracy and its antithesis contain the formal/informal dialectic within as well as between them” (Hart, 2010:379).

The ‘informal sector’ is not really informal, because it has its own rules and forms. In order to understand what informality really means, it is necessary to define it by what it actually is, rather than by what it is not. Hart assures this positive descriptive task obliges to delve into the rationalities of kinship (and maybe tribalism?) and disentangle its significance from corruption (Hart, 2010:383). This is an invitation to search for a value-neutral view of corruption though kinship. Of course this sounds almost illogical, but so is all radical thinking against the grain. Besides, how can it be illogical to claim for a better understanding of everyday life?

Hart, Keith (2010). “Africa’s Urban Revolution and the Informal Economy”, Vishnu Padayachee, The Political Economy of Africa, pp. 372-387.

Hart, Keith (2011). “The informal economy: a story of ethnography untold”, The Memory Bank RSS. Keith Hart’s Blog, Entry: 8 Jan. 2011. Accessed: 16 Dec. 2012

Sassen, Saskia (2010) “The Global City ” in The Blackwell City Reader, edited by Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, 2010, pp. 126-132.

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One thought on “Everyday Africa and the theory of informality

  1. Pingback: Koolhaas’ Lagos | Project Africa @ The New School

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