New Internationalist

Street Wise

Issue 166

new internationalist
issue 166 - December 1986

Street wise
Most people in the Third World will never know the routine of
nine-to-five jobs - work to them is a seamless part of everyday life.
From Rio to Delhi, Peter Stalker discovers how to survive on the street.

Ana Donato sells her mother's coconut sweets - informal survival is learned young on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
Photo: Peter Stalker

Informality is the watchword on Rio's beaches. Bronzed female figures glisten in the sunshine. Bronzed male figures alternate between glistening and leaping around on the soft sand of the volleyball courts. No standing or lying on ceremony here. During Rio's ritual weekend retreat to the beach the grey suits and the crisply-laundered shirts give way to as little as will (or may) cover the vital parts. But look closer and you will see other figures threading their way through the bodies. Not quite so scantily clad. Not as carefully manicured or coiffeured. And nothing like so idle.

Their activity is also defined as informal - in economic terms at least. These are the sellers of Coca-Cola, or soft toys or parasols or even water. And the ringing of bells and crying of their wares may have hints more of desperation or resignation than informality.

It was an economist called Hart who first coined the term 'informal sector' back in 1973. He was looking for a way to classify the unclassifiable - and at least took the first step of giving it a label.1

What exactly does the label imply? Easier to say what it does not imply. In most rich countries the majority of those working away from the home have a fixed job at a fixed site: a place to work, organize a trade union and pay taxes. This is the formal sector. Aside from this there will be the crooks and moonlighters and the operators of the underground economy - all of them as often as not working outside the law and outside the tax system. But these will be usually a minority.

In most Third World countries the position is reversed. Those who can claim a steady job in a factory or office or government service are a privileged elite. Everyone else makes a living as best they can, selling steaming plates of beans and rice from makeshift stalls, shining shoes, repairing cars on the pavement. No social security here, no sickness benefit. No tax either, though there is very little money to be taxed in the first place.

It is difficult to attach numbers to a phenomenon like this. But estimates in six Latin American and two Asian cities show that anywhere between 40 and 70 per cent of their urban workforces are 'informal'. These are in fact the workers who keep most cities going, not just because they feed and clothe a good proportion of the population but because they also supply many of the factories with parts and raw materials - some stolen from other factories no doubt, but made conveniently available nonetheless.

The shifting, uncertain nature of this kind of life makes many of the conventional assumptions about work and play irrelevant. Work begins when the day begins and ends when the day ends. Selling fruit at traffic lights? Plug a flex into the nearest street lamp and keep your stall going to catch the late-night cinema-goers.

Even the distinctions between different phases of human life fuzz and blur. Childhood is less an epoch between zero and 15 years old than an arbitrary time of day. The morning at school screaming and giggling with the rest of them. The afternoon shining shoes or selling fruit, or running along the beach snatching the occasional moment of football along with the occasional wallet.

Work in this case is not so much what gives a meaning to life, more what makes life possible: a means of gleaning something, however slight, from a hostile environment. It has no beginning and no end. Working and eating and sleeping and childcare and everything else blend into one organic whole.

The seamless continuity of working life for the poor in Third World cities may be relatively new territory for the sociologists, but for the people who occupy the slums and the shanty towns it is just the latest phase of a tradition that stretches back to the countryside from which they or their parents emigrated.

Life in the village is also based on long days - working to the rhythm of the seasons. The earth must be planted and sown. And as much will be worked in a day as the hours of the sun and the hands of the family will permit. If the patch of land is too small, and there isn't enough for the family's food, then off they go as labourers for someone else.

So why go to the city? Why trade one continuum of life and work for another? Especially when the village seems at first sight a much more amenable place to keep body and soul together than a city choked with noise, dirt, traffic and violence.

The truth is that the city, however unpleasant and hostile it may seem, is usually a more rewarding place to work - even for its poorest inhabitants. For one thing there is more to do: you can spend more time 'at work'. One study of squatter settlements in Delhi. in India, for example showed that casual labourers could find work for 250 days a year - more than twice the number of days they could work in the village. If you don't have land in the countryside - and increasing numbers of workers do not - you are exposed to the vicissitudes of the local landlords and the political and economic pressures they can bring to bear. The city does at least give you the chance to be exploited by a greater variety of people.

Given these options, increasing numbers of workers are voting with their feet. From the drylands of the sertão in north-east Brazil, they flock to Rio and São Paulo. Whole families are left behind to fend as best they can in the African bush while men seek the brighter lights of Kinshasa or Nairobi. Indeed cities all over the Third World are swelling daily with migrants keen to see better rewards for their labour. Some 30 per cent of the Third World's people now live in cities and the figure is rising fast. Most of the world's biggest cities by the end of this century will all be in developing countries - Mexico City leading the field with a projected population of 26 million.2

But not everyone comes for the same reason. Ask the informal workers of Rio why they migrated to the city, and you will get a wide range of responses. US sociologist Janice Perlman has done just that.3 She talked to those who had come to live in the favelas that cling to the city's hillsides and asked what had persuaded them to make the break. Not surprisingly, 46 per cent mentioned money. But just as many spoke of family or health reasons - to join a relative or spouse, escape from a difficult family situation, find a husband or wife, or get medical treatment. Interestingly only five per cent mentioned the 'attraction of the city itself - the glamour and the bright lights are less of a consideration in the face of more practical pressures.

Insecurity and dislocation are natural hazards for the Third World's informal workers: little help can be expected from the state or the employer if there is an accident at work or the job disappears altogether. At this point they will have to fall back on informal networks of family and friends.

Even those who are arriving in the city for the first time look for the help of an informal network. Few people will travel 'blind' to a new environment. Generally they will seek out relatives or contacts who live there already.

Even in Brazil, which has much less of an extended-family network than is evident in Asia or Africa, there are godparents, compadrios, who can be called on for help. Janice Perlman found that two-thirds of those she spoke to found their first jobs through friends or relatives. Indeed, since the new arrivals are likely to start sleeping on your floor and eating your food there is a strong incentive to help them onto the first steps of the ladder.

Such networks can even be used to find jobs in the formal sector. In Bombay, for example, it has been found that three quarters of those migrants who had managed to get blue- or white-collar jobs already had relatives in the city. And nine out of ten of these said they had been helped by relatives or friends on their arrival.3

Pavão is a favela that clings to a muddy hillside above Copacabana. From this vantage point Ana Donato, a frail-looking 12-year-old, can see the skyscrapers of Rio - and beyond them the beach. Down below, she says, her mother is working on a vegetable stall.

Today is Sunday so Ana is not at school. But like any other day she will be spending a lot of it selling - or trying to sell - the coconut sweets her mother makes. She hops over the steep steps and open drains from one group of people to another, pulling back the cloth from the metal pan, trying to tempt the neighbours. She is learning early that, for her, there's likely to be nothing formal, nothing fixed about work or leisure, money or food.

Peter Stalker is a co-editor of NI.

1 A good and readable account of work in Third World cities is given in cities Poverty and Development. Gilbert and Gugler, OUP, 1981.
2
United Nations Fund for Population Activities, State of World Population Report 1988.
3
The Myth of Marginality, Janice E Perlman, Univeraity of California Press, 1976.

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Making tradition work
Zimbabwe's health policy is helping traditional
midwives do their jobs more effectively.

When messages were first sent out in 1983 inviting traditional midwives for training many thought that it was a Government trick to have them arrested. They stayed away. The newly independent Government was spending heavily on modern health care and traditional healers felt threatened. The training program has allayed these fears and representatives a radical departure from 'West is Best'. The program accepts that 75 per cent of births occur at home. Delivering all babies in a hospital would be impossible given the limited transport infrastructure - as well as prohibitively expensive and not necessarily safer or in the best interests of most women.

So in an era when computer literacy is being touted as the road to future employment the Government of Zimbabwe is putting its faith in an upgraded form of one of that society's most traditional skills - that of delivering babies. In fact the traditional midwife may not be literate at all - an apparent anachronism for a medical professions, where work relies increasingly on high tech skills. But, by improving the knowledge and status of existing midwifes, infant and maternal mortality is being considerably reduced. This is all the more necessary during Zimbabwe's post-liberation baby boom.

Most of the midwives are local mothers although sometimes they are traditional healers and herbalists. They are known and respected in their villages and their advice and assistance is often more readily accepted than that offered by a city-trained newcomer.

Training sessions are held one afternoon a week for six months - enough time to cover nutrition, breastfeeding and the importance of Under Fives Clinics as well as safe midwifery. The midwives may be illiterate but they are not stupid and can easily upgrade their skills if appropriate teaching methods are used. For example - pouring half a litre of red coloured water is a more effective way of learning to judge the quantity of blood in a haemorrhage than simply looking at a half-litre container. The courses discourage dangerous practices such as rubbing cow dung into the umbilical cord or giving oxytoxic herbs to speed up birth.

Some of the traditional midwives are disappointed not to get regular government jobs with a steady salary attached. But the Ministry of Health cannot afford to pay them. The midwives work freelance as part of the informal sector which encompasses so many of Africa's workers. They receive payment in the traditional way - a goat, a couple of chickens, a bag of maize or a favour from the family involved. Those midwives who have earned a badge by taking the Government course may earn more than their colleagues. Parents give the midwife further payments when their babies cut their first teeth and if they reach their first birthdays. The payment-by-results ensures continuing care and advice from the midwife on breastfeeding, nutrition, immunization and other forms of care.

The midwife training program makes good use of resources in a labour-intensive economy. The strength of the program is that everything is done at the local level. The curriculum can be adapted to local needs. The cost is negligible. Rural women - among the most oppressed people in the Third World societies - receive recognition for their traditional skills and forms of labour. The courses lead to an alleviation of suffering and an increase in the amount of control village women can exercise over their fate and that of their communities. This co-operation between old and modern systems of health care is an innovative integration of barter and monetary economies. For once the cash nexus is not destroying traditional wisdom.

Janie Hampton

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