New Internationalist

Colonising the Informal Sector

May 1980

The North’s eagerness to develop the South has left many sections of Third World communities untouched. Thousands of rural people come scurrying into the cities to grasp at the hem of industry’s golden cloak. But only a few find a lasting cure for their poverty. Development has everywhere been unable to provide sufficient employment and welfare services for the millions who seek them.

A growing school of development consultants argue that this is because the scale of aid is inappropriate. It would be better to provide cheap, small, labour-intensive projects instead of unwieldy operations with expensive machinery. ‘Harness the informal sector’, it is now argued. ‘Train and subsidise the barefoot businessman.’

But Ivan Illich is wary of uncritically advocating this approach. Long­acknowledged as a leading proponent of self-sufficiency and appropriate technology, he is nevertheless worried that a new sect of development experts is poised to colonise the South. The ‘small is beautiful’ evangelists may impose yet another set of Northern values on a bewildered developing world.

In newly independent democracies people can choose either a left or right wing government. But freedom of choice is sadly lacking in other spheres of human life. People often exchange their ‘undeveloped’ rural drudgery for ‘developed’ urban drudgery. But opportunities only exist for a few to rise out of their toil into satisfying working lives. A person with hardly any possessions may earn the money to buy more, but few are able fully to enjoy their new possession in a creative and satisfying lifestyle.

For the majority there is no choice - over the work they do, the environment in which they live, or the satisfactions which they seek.

If the myriad of small street vendors were to be incorporated into the main - formal sector - economy they would automatically find themselves in a system of values and assumptions inherited from the North - and found by many to be wanting. This system, argues Illich, defines ‘development’ - large or small scale, formal or informal - as the replacement of ‘real competence’ and self-sufficiency by the consumption of goods and services. He claims that with development of this kind ‘individuals live only through dependence on education, health services, transportation, and other packages provided through the multiple udders of industrial institutions.’

Illich questions the Marxists’ adherence to industrial advance as a way to free mankind from the drudgery of subsistence. It is possible to envisage an ‘enlightened form of subsistence’ which frees mankind from the frustrating consumerism promoted by industrial society. Modern but appropriate technology like ploughs and sewing machines make it possible to remain self­sufficient but at the same time be relieved of the hardships of old-style subsistence. Technical progress can also give the freedom to discover new values. ‘The replacement of consumer goods by personal action is the goal’ argues Illich. ‘The guitar is valued over the record, the library over the school room, the backyard garden over the supermarket selection.’

Both the North and the South should have the freedom to make these additional choices; between a life controlled by high technology and expanding institutions and one in which small-scale subsistence activities pre­dominate; and between lifestyles where satisfactions are met either through commodities or through activities. In the North people have begun to exercise the freedom to choose between these alternatives. But the South is still being bombarded by planeloads of experts carrying one-sided development creeds pronounced by Northern institutions. No-one yet offers the third world an alternative.

This column was published in the May 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 87

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