If they’re not farming, most people in developing countries work in the informal economy. They are making food or goods to sell out of their homes, cleaning others’ houses and caring for others’ children. They are street vendors and itinerant workers, collecting trash and separating out reusable bits.
These are not the jobs reported in official employment statistics, but they’re the jobs that occupy the time of 8 out of every 10 workers in South Asia, two-thirds of workers in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, and half of all workers in Latin America. Across the world, it is these jobs in which you’re most likely to find women—scraping out a living, contributing to the economy, and pretty much overlooked and undervalued by the powers that be. There’s little doubt in my mind that progress toward women’s economic empowerment has to be measured by improvements in the lives and livelihoods of precisely these workers.
Creating the right policy environment at every level—from municipal through to international—so that these workers can make a decent living is a challenge for the future. Development theory once held that informality gradually gives way to more structured, regulated labor markets, and over time employment opportunities emerge from the expansion of things like manufacturing, services and construction. Now, as informal employment persists even where economies are growing, and the formal sector seems incapable of creating enough jobs for today’s record number of young workers, a new narrative is unfolding.
The informal economy is increasingly valued as a core part of developing economies, and its workers are finding ways to join together to demand recognition and rights. Remarkably, some of those organizations, like the Self-employed Women’s Association and the International Domestic Workers’ Network, have joined the ranks of the most influential labor groups in the world. As a result of such organizing, the International Labour Organisation has recognized the importance of protecting domestic workers’ health and safety, and municipal authorities cities in Accra, Bogota and many other cities have had to respond to demands from street traders and waste pickers, to take just two examples.
This isn’t happening by accident. Much of the progress can be traced to the work of WIEGO, one of the organizations we support in the women’s economic empowerment portfolio of the Global Development and Population Program. WEIGO bills itself as a “global action-research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women in the informal economy.” It is a special, perhaps unique, organization that has built an organic network out of three elements: organizations of informal workers; innovative and committed researchers and statisticians; and development practitioners. Rather than cultivating an arm’s length relationship among the researchers and advocates and what’s being studied, WIEGO’s model depends on a combination of rigor and deep connection.
What stands out most to me is that the motivation and drive for WIEGO’s work comes from the day-to-day realities of workers’ lives: It is a direct connection to waste pickers, home-based workers and others that informs the priorities for research and advocacy. WIEGO researchers, many of whom are based at prestigious universities, don’t just analyze survey data; they immerse themselves in the lives of the informal workers and listen carefully to the perspectives of the workers. They use those experiences to inform the research questions they pursue.
WIEGO researchers collect information—some of the only information in the world on the informal workers—and conduct studies in collaboration with the workers’ groups, using rigorous methods. They then share back the findings so that representatives of workers are well armed with facts as they advocate for greater protections and opportunities for their members. The development practitioners working with WIEGO, who come from both government and non-governmental sectors, also have a role. They help leaders in workers’ organizations identify opportunities for policy engagement and influence. With those openings, workers’ representatives can bring their authentic voices, plus cutting-edge research on the conditions of workers’ lives, to municipal, national and international debates.
We’re learning a lot from working with WIEGO. WIEGO has a wealth of knowledge and insights about the informal economy, which will help us all understand what actions can be taken to improve opportunities for women around the world. Beyond that, WIEGO has knowledge about how to build and sustain a model of engaged research and advocacy that is very different than many of the organizations we support. It’s a model that may teach us a lot about how research and advocacy can be vital ways to amplify authentic voices of people who are affected by policies made far from their homes and places of work.