In Lagos, Nigeria people are building entire communities floating on swamps, arbitrating their disputes in courts held on garbage mounds, and meeting together to discuss workplace regulation. Somewhere in the United Nations, someone is writing a 'policy paper' directing the actions of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people in Lagos and around the world. This paper never reaches the ears of its residents, and perhaps they are better off for it. Who wants to be told they can't accomplish their goals without the 'help' of a distant, well-paid adviser?
I believe that people are too often enamored by bigness. In the world of development, writers spill gallons of ink each day bickering over the policies of massive institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, or the United States government. At the same time, the goals of those working for international development are framed in lofty, abstract terms: 'human rights,' 'social uplift,' 'equality', 'freedom'. These all sound like laudable goals, and no doubt they probably are, but much of what is important, instructive and indeed beautiful about the developing world is lost by drifting away from the concrete.
Those studying kiosks selling fresh produce in Kenya were surprised to find that kiosk owners were also providing mail services and acting as secure storage for keys and other valuables for their customers. These 'programs' for communication and security were not planned by a government letter-mail czar or initiated with red-carpets unfurled and tinkling champagne glasses at a World Bank gala. Those enamored by bigness see a problem: 'where can I safely store my house keys?' 'how can I get a message to my family member?'... and imagine a clean, efficient, centralized solution.
And in the words of HL Mencken, "For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."
Instead, these services emerged spontaneously from the trust between entrepreneur and customer. The trader has been there, day after day, for long stretches. He will most likely be there tomorrow. The customer picks up some fruit and they exchange pleasantries. "How is your family?" or "Don't you have a lovely daughter." And so from these tiny, daily transactions for fruit and vegetables comes the private provision of mail and the protection of property. What bureau would have predicted this? What planner or development economist would have prescribed fruit vendors to turn oranges into safes or letterboxes? Economist FA Hayek would call the pretension that we could have known this in advance a "fatal conceit": by forcibly directing the actions of people we would have destroyed the trust on which the kiosks rely.
The trash-pickers of Lagos and the fruit vendors of Kenya are rarely called 'heroes'. Indeed, in many countries informal traders and 'slum-dwellers' are reviled as parasites and as a poverty-ridden underclass. States raise impossible barriers to building their businesses and actively destroy and extort the markets on which they rely.
But they prove themselves every day in the resilience of their spirit, in their ability to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles, legal and otherwise, to better themselves and their communities. They outsmart their supposed 'betters' with Ivy League degrees and corner offices. For this, informal traders deserve respect and careful attention.