Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Informal" Food Systems: unpacking assumptions about meaning and value

I have a particular interest in researching and engaging with the 'small' urban food sector. This is a sector you're familiar with if you've spent time in places where the industrial food system hasn't transformed the food environment. In such places, smallholder farmers grow the food, and then that food is moved off the farm and into cities through the individual efforts of many thousands of small-scale transporters and traders. This sector is a main source of food for most people in these places, and a huge source of employment for many, especially women.

The small-food sector is extremely important to both food security and livelihood, but, with the exception of smallholder farmers, it receives very little attention from academia, governments, or other research institutions and development agencies. Essentially, what goes on in that sector is a 'black box' from an outsider's point-of-view, which means that in addition to knowing very little about the activities and relationships that comprise it, researchers and decision-makers also have very little appreciation for how it is important to the people that depend on it.*  

The words that people use to frame any reality or object of study carry some assumptions that influence how value or meaning is attached to that particular reality. The word that is often used to describe systems in the Global South is 'informal.'  And while some organizations, such as ILO and WIEGO use the term to draw attention to how (mainly) poor people experience the economy, housing, and food provisioning and exchange in cities, mainstream economists and development professionals use the term to signify a system in chaos, or 'without form.'

If you attached characteristics to an informal/formal dichotomy, it would probably look something like this:

In a 'developmentalist' framing, the value attached to informal is 'undeveloped' (and therefore bad**), while formal would be construed as modern and developed.

Narratives are historical and serve particular interests, so a brief history of the word can help to see how it's been leveraged in favor of particular agendas. Initially, it was used by Keith Hart (1973) to characterize the difference between wage‐earning (formal) and self‐employment (informal).  His intent in making the distinction was to caution against the "unthinking transfer of western categories to the economic and social structures of African cities." However, the significance of the word evolved as it was colonized and folded into the prevailing developmentalist macroeconomic policy framework, which enabled informality to emerge as an ‘object of state regulation’(Roy, 2005). To his obvious chagrin, Hart subsequently noted that the "'informal economy' became a way of turning what is defiantly external to bureaucracy into something internal to it, incorporating the autonomous life of the people into the abstracted universe of their rulers" (Hart 2006) The concept, both as presented by Hart, and in its revised 'developmentalist' form received a lot of criticism, but it persisted because, as so succinctly stated by Ray Bromley in his introduction to a 1978 edition of World Development, “it provided the rationale for the sorts of policies which the mainstream development community wished to recommend to…..Third World countries.”  In other words, it “embodied policy implications which were convenient for international organizations and politically middle of the road governments” and “it appeared to help the poor without any major threat to the rich.”

In the food sector, 'informal' connotes antiquated, dilapidated, and insufficient for moving food around in growing cities. There is an emerging consensus that it will be necessary to 'structurally transform' these systems so that food demand can be met.*** The assertion that structural transformation is needed, however, comes with no empirical evidence about why current small-scale food provisioning systems would be unable to meet this future demand. Let me be clear, I'm not saying they can or cannot. As someone who has been researching these food systems for several years, I know that actors in small-scale food systems struggle and could use some support to address issues that negatively impact their work and ability to provision cities. But to implement policies without knowing how those policies will affect a primary source of food and livelihood is irresponsible and very likely to harm many people. Further, to malign and dismiss these practices without understanding them is to deprive ourselves of insight that can be helpful in reinventing the definition of 'modern' food systems, a clear need in light of the contemporary and unprecedented challenges facing us. 'Modern' food systems, given their tendency to produce obesity, cause environmental disasters, use practices that are unethical to both humans and animals, and be overly energy intensive, are looking increasingly backwards and in need of an overhaul to be more capable of dealing with 'modern' challenges.

So, what terms should be used if not 'informal?'  What terms might better call attention to the interests that are served by particular investments into food systems?  For my own work, it will depend on whom I'm talking to, but I'll not be able to abandon the term completely because of its wide purchase among advocates and people actually working in that sector (e.g. MUFIS).  I have colleagues that prefer the term 'traditional,' but, while that doesn't give the impression of chaos, it does convey something 'old fashioned.' I've been using 'small-scale,' but that is devoid of cultural and political significance, which are important aspects of any food system. Charles Dhewa uses the term People's Market, which calls attention to who controls, uses, and benefits from this kind of food exchange, but it isn't a term in wide use. My academic self likes 'emergent,' 'popular,' and/or 'complex adaptive systems.' For the time being, it's at least important to make the inherent assumptions explicit and to keep shining a light into the black box.

* (edit, 13January: I should note the exception to this broad statement.  The Consuming Poverty project ( is currently one of the few research and engagement projects working in this area. In addition, AFSUN ( has quite a number of empirical works on urban food security in African cities.)

**The World Bank says "The term informality means different things to different people, but almost always bad things: unprotected workers, excessive regulation, low productivity, unfair competition, evasion of the rule of law, underpayment or nonpayment of taxes, and work “underground” or in the shadows."

***From the publication "Growing Food for Growing Cities", p. 26: "structural transformation of the food system includes both structural changes and conduct changes within the segments of the food system. Structural changes include spatial lengthening, consolidation, disintermediation, and vertical integration. Conduct changes include technological advances, use of purchasing standards and contracts, the rise of procurement networks, and increased horizontal coordination such as cooperatives."

Works Cited
Bromley, R. (1978). Introduction-The urban informal sector: why is it worth discussing?. World development6(9), 1033-1039.
Hart, Keith. (1973). Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 11(1), 61‐89.
Hart, K. (2006). Bureaucratic form and the informal economy. Linking the formal and informal economy: Concepts and policies, 21-35.
Roy, A. (2005). Urban informality: toward an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association71(2), 147-158.