Informality

In the attempt to describe processes that have been shaping our world, we talk about globalization, urbanization or commoditization. I emphasize another phenomenon interlinked with the former, also increasingly significant for today’s world and its future: informalization. Unlike the mainstream view, I do not assume it as a ‘parasitizing’ process aggressively spreading around cities worldwide; on the contrary, I perceive informalization rather as a transformative and alternative way to address externalities produced by globalization, urbanization and commoditization themselves. The informalization as a new paradigm has to be echoed, involved and conceptualized.

While informalization of housing and income has been increasingly observed across low- and middle-income countries, traditional policy instruments have encountered difficulties to address implications and consequences of this process. In practical terms, the need to search for a more comprehensive framework of the discourse on inequality and poverty, injustice and inaccessability of a life in dignity for millions of people around the globe should be interlocked with the search for better understanding of the role of informality in their life and in development and public policies alike – at local, national and supra-national level.

Street vendor at central station

Street vendor at the Chennai Central station, North Chennai (2010)

Informality frames the lives of the so-called urban poor in terms of housing, livelihood and social networks. Urban dwellers in informal settlements mainly operate their income-generating activities in the informal economy lacking any social protection; they live in self-built or rented houses without permission or official title, not meeting formal housing regulations and standards; they practice and communicate their daily needs through informal networks and contacts.

Informality may be considered as a problem or may be perceived as a process of transformation in an increasingly urbanized world. For my part, the problem is not informality itself, but rather the climate of political economy that discriminates against informality. Its negative externalities in people’s lives could be removed by their own actions, but certainly not without supportive actions of others. I challenge the existing practices and suggest learning from emerging alternative approaches. Then, addressing insecure housing, vulnerability and missing rights as implications of informality play a key role in this learning process.