The Unsustainable Illegalization of Street Hawkers (and, What are Some Real Solutions?)

In September 2010, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly passed the “Street Hawking Bye-laws, 2011,” which outlined eight prohibitions pertaining to street vending (known locally as “hawking”), littering, soliciting alms, juvenile delinquency and promotional activities on roads and public spaces in Accra, with the bye-laws intended to go into effect on April 1 of this year. Nearly five months later, these activities, particularly street hawking (street vending) continue to persist as city-wide issues (in many cases, street vendors defied the bye-laws from day one). The bye-laws have not been enforced, and business continues as usual, despite some harassment of vendors by police on occasion.
Street hawkers line the pedestrian walkways along Graphic Road near Kaneshie Market. Accra, Ghana.

So the question is, why do efforts by the AMA continue to fail to address street hawking, and are they even addressing the real problem(s), or just the symptoms?

The Bye-laws: What They Are About
The “Street Hawking Bye-laws, 2011” were made at an AMA meeting on September 1, 2010. According to the document, the prohibitions are against:
  1. Sale, offer of sale or purchase of merchandise to vehicle drivers or passengers
  2. Trading on the street (except for street markets)
  3. Littering on streets, pavements and from moving vehicles
  4. Owners of vehicles required to provide waste bins for passengers and to use those
  5. Solicitation of alms, aiding and encouragement of solicitation of alms (with exception of religious or charitable organizations)
  6. Responsibility of a parent to avoid child delinquency
  7. Promotional activities on streets or in markets without proper permit
    — AMA (Street Hawking) Bye-laws, 2011, September 1, 2010
Bye-laws such as these that intend to address land use activities but fail to consider the livelihood question (for these people, vending is a full time job). First, given the dynamic economy, the sheer extent and role of the informal economy, including street hawkers, is critical to functioning of many African cities, in Accra as well as in other cities. These workers, although unrecognized by the AMA, contribute key services, make products more accessible, and address a key need for the public. For example, an International Labor Organization study estimates that more than 70 percent of non-agricultural employment in Sub-Saharan Africa is in the informal economy. In Ghana, the large formal economy seems to be driven by unemployment and underemployment, forcing individuals to engage in trading activities as a means of economic survival. Interestingly, a recent study on Ghana frames this issue well:

“Unemployment and underemployment remain major problems, reflecting the failure of past economic growth to generate substantial formal employment in the private sector, and the lack of job-relevant skills of the majority of the workforce.  Ghana’s labour market is still characterized by the dominance of employment in agriculture and a large informal economy. Government figures indicate that currently two out of three working adults are employed. The national unemployment rate is estimated at only 3% by government sources. The low rate of unemployment in the country disguises the high levels of unemployment and underemployment inherent in the large informal sector.” — “Ghana: Social Context and Human Resource Development,” African Economic Outlook, 2011

Organizing a Response
An organizing initiative, the Ghana Urban Platform, is driven by issues such as these. A network of Ghanaian professionals engaged in various aspects of urban development, the Urban Platform aims to “draw attention to key concerns about Ghanaian cities,” from submitting and discussing solutions to city problems, to networking and asserting citizens rights to be heard to city government. A key benefit of the platform is the network’s discussion groups, where members highlight and discuss urban ills from this very street hawking issue to the emergence of shopping malls.
Members of the group, including Prof. Ohene Sarfo of the Institute of Local Government Studies, opined on the nature and real potential solutions for addressing the street hawking question. As Sarfoh wrote (paraphrased here), the dilemma has many roots. On the one hand, city managers opt for expediency, rather than well thought out, integrated city policies and practices. Technocrats kowtow to appease politicians. The media, the gatekeepers to information, fill newspapers with partisan political shouting matches and religious fundraising, rather than fulfilling their public duty to inform and educate the public on key matters. The professional class suffers from NIMBY, or “Not In My Backyard” syndrome. Underlying these issues, he says, exists “a feral underclass disconnected from the state and all forms of formally constructed social order.” The chaos has reached a key point “some people have no conception of lawfulness.” The street hawker question is inextricably tied to this. He asks, “What constitutes lawfulness and formality, and who determines the boundaries of lawfulness and formality?”
Developing Sustainable Solutions – Organization, not Illegalization
Despite the AMA’s actions, it is clear by the sheer extent of street vending, the nature of the economy unemployment (and underemployment) levels that street hawking is here to stay — and that’s not a bad thing. So real solutions to manage street hawking must first appreciate the role these vendors serve, these activities as their livelihood, and find ways to manage the this commercial activity with transport, public spaces, residential and other key land use activities.

Any solution must to designate accessible hawking spaces or zones (for both patrons and vendors), and/or standardize vending venues and sizes that allow vending but also respect the need for ease of traffic in public spaces (pedestrian walkways, roadways). Concurrently, skills training and capacity building, combined with microfinancing to support small business development, as well as the execution of policies that encourage vendors to move from informal to small-scale business services, can help draw informal works into a more formal, regulated economy, and incentivize them through support and the potential for regular employment.

In Kerala, India, city officials are doing just that through a street vending management pilot project. Instead of trying to outlaw street vending, city officials and urban planners are recognizing it as a legitimate economic activity and “public convenience,” and efforts are focused on organizing these activities for the public good: licensing vendors, designating street hawking zones and times, providing mobile stalls to vendors that suit their types of wares and even facilitating access to microfinance for vendors.

So much of this change in Kerala is centered on the necessity that officials and the public change their perspectives on street vending. While in its current form this activity is disorganized, promotes congestion seems inefficient, I can’t help but wonder, if the phone credit vendors weren’t there on the street and sidewalks, where would I get my phone credit from? Clearly, these vendors provide a necessary service. The question is how cities like Accra will choose to harness it for the greater good.

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