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Security and justice in the informal economy: exploring links and trajectories


Informal economies are not ‘ungoverned spaces’: there are informal security and justice providers, and often the state and elites are heavily involved. But how are security and justice being organized in the informal economy, for whom, and by whom? And who benefits? These questions were taken up at an Interactive Brainstorm of the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law on November 23, 2015.

Three highlights

  • Engagement with the informal economy means engaging with intricate power dynamics, blurred lines between state and non-state, licit and illicit: how will an intervention interact with these?
  • Approaching the informal economy with a “criminal justice lens” is not productive: rather, investigate the development trajectories of security and justice provision, to find how actors can be induced to change for the better.
  • Cases suggest there are certain tipping points, when informal systems change. Where are these tipping points, and what makes things go bad?

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Interactive Brainstorm: Informal Economies in Fragile Environments: Exploring the links to justice and security #SRoLeconomy

On 23 November 2015, 20 professionals with diverse backgrounds came together for an open-minded exploration of how informal economies shape, and are subsequently shaped by, the organization and provision of security and justice in fragile situations. The morning saw presentations on illicit trade in Northern Mali, drugs and illicit practices in four countries, and the informal urban transport sector in Rwanda/Uganda. In the afternoon, participants divided into two smaller groups to discuss the informal economy as alternative regulatory order, and the role of elite interests.

Common features

How security and justice are being organized, and to what extent this is a success, differs greatly from place to place: yet there are also common features. From gangs in Nairobi, to transport associations in Kampala, and heroin trade in Tajikistan, it is clear that the relation with the state matters for the success of informal systems. Often there are intimate relations between the state and informal (even criminal) actors, blurring the lines between state and non-state, licit and illicit. Similarly, it is clear that elites benefit disproportionately of these arrangements, with some cases suggesting a trickling up of microcredit from the lower to the higher echelons. These linkages were illustrated by a wealth of empirical case material from Mali, Tajikistan, Colombia, Afghanistan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya.

But different trajectories

It is important to gain a better understanding of the development trajectories of different forms of informal security and justice provision, to understand how informal security and justice are organized, and how interventions may affect this. Many of these systems find their origin in informal economic activities. To what extent does this origin in profit creation, affect the inclusion of economically marginalized groups in these systems? Are there ways to make these systems more inclusive and egalitarian? Political involvement often critically affects these organizations, as shown by the rise and demise of the urban transport association UTODA in Uganda. Similarly, “mafia style agreements” with governments or the international community condoning certain activities, while prohibiting other types of activities, have a strong effect on the development of the informal economy and, consequently, security and justice provision.

And consequences for intervention

The informal economy has proven a remarkably resilient phenomenon, and thus requires humility in attempts to change this. Often the informal economy is approached with a “criminal justice lens”,  while actually, the informal economy is business as usual, representing a system of governance that precedes colonialism. Engagement means engaging with intricate power dynamics, and facing the question how an intervention will interact with these. Open spaces, competing networks, tipping points present potential entry points to influence the way informal economy and justice are organized. The intricacy of the linkages in the informal economy means that interventions should allow room for experimenting and learning.

These are some of the first answers: a more extensive summary report will become available in the coming weeks.The conversation also continues online: participants were invited to write blog posts which will be published on our website. You’re invited to join the conversation: share your comments, or write a new blog post.