marchiori1_Annika HammerschlagAnadolu Agency via Getty Images_street vendors Annika Hammerschlag/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Justice for Street Vendors

Governments in the Global South have rushed to “clean up” cities and adopt strategies to formalize the informal economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet such efforts often fail to recognize public space as a workplace and criminalize the affected workers.

WASHINGTON, DC – A wave of evictions recently hit in Dakar’s bustling Liberté 6 market, a roughly mile-long commercial hub that has served its community for more than 20 years. Hundreds of street vendors’ stalls were bulldozed to make way for a new bus system. Authorities gave prior notice and an indemnity to help with the loss of business, but did not address the real problem: the lack of trading space.

Street vending is a legitimate economic activity that provides livelihoods for millions and accounts for a large share of urban employment in many cities across the Global South. Nearly 59,000 street vendors work in Dakar, accounting for 13.8% of total employment, while metropolitan Lima has roughly 450,000, comprising 8.8% of total employment. And these numbers are likely growing as the informal economy absorbs many of those left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is a livelihood that requires one resource above all: access to busy, pedestrian-friendly, well-connected, and affordable public space. But government authorities focus instead on “cleaning up” cities, which means clearing the streets of vendors. In their view, informal traders are a nuisance: they litter and clutter streets, obstruct urban mobility, and occupy precious space that could be used for modernization or beautification projects, or sold to deep-pocketed developers and transformed into oases of leisure for urban elites.