From smugglers to supermarkets: the ‘informal economy’ touches us all

As I talk to him, Ahmed pulls his chair into his store to escape the hot Tunisian sun. He is a retired teacher – the years of screaming children can be counted in the rings framing his eyes. Behind him is his merchandise. To make up for a small pension, Ahmed is selling kitchenware in a market near the Libyan border, over four hundred tiny concrete garages surround him, goods piled high: clothes, bags, microwaves. It looks like any other market, but note an invisible detail: everything sold here is illegal. Every good in this market has been smuggled into Tunisia. Ahmed, though he may not look the part, is a smuggler.

I research smuggling, or “informal cross-border trade”. I talk to people like Ahmed about their lives, their business, the experience of being a smuggler in the 21st century. I talk to people who live on the margins – of their countries, of the law, of development. I think listening to Ahmed is crucial in order to understand our society. Not because the margins are so exotic, or a living relic, a modern day Wild West. But because today, the margins are everywhere.

We group people like Ahmed into the “informal economy”, the black markets that aren’t registered and hence don’t show up in many statistics – that are surely too small to make much of a difference. Except that in Tunisia, where Ahmed lives, half the workforce is in the informal economy. In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s two thirds. In south-east Asia, it’s over 80%. Globally, informal is the new normal. This is not only an issue in the developing world: over two million people work in the informal economy in the UK; over 12% of its GDP is in the informal sector, and all these numbers are steadily rising.

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