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Legal Empowerment of Informal Workers Formalizing Street Vending as a Tool for Poverty Reduction

By: Ana Maria Vargas

Being poor, uneducated and unemployed can be a crime in many places in the world, particularly when you decide to sell food or other products in the streets. The penalties can be as high as six months in prison in countries like Egypt, and can include the confiscation of their goods or fines that have to be paid to the municipality. The plight of global street vendors can be exemplified with the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor who set himself on fire in 2010 as a protest after the confiscation of his goods by the police authorities, becoming a catalyst for the Tunisian revolution and the Arab Spring.

To contribute to this longstanding debate about formalization as a tool of
empowerment, this article analyses the effects of a recent formalization
programme in the city of Bogotá, Colombia. Based on 169 structured
interviews with formalized street vendors, this research uncovers local
perceptions about legal empowerment, formalization and the rule of law. The
results illustrate that empowerment come from legalizing the status of vendors
allowing them to sell without fear of police eviction and not necessarily from
income improvement and access to credit.

This report brings empirical data to the debate about the ability of law to
contribute to the empowerment and development of informal workers,
looking into the case of street vendors. Looking into the potential that law has
for poverty reduction is an important goal and for that reason, this research
aims to understand whether legal change, getting the legal permit to sell, can
in fact bring empowerment for street vendors.