Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Tensions Created by the Formal and Informal Use of Urban Space: The Case of Nairobi, Kenya

Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Tensions Created by the Formal and Informal Use of Urban Space: The Case of Nairobi, Kenya

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This paper examines the tensions that have come forth as a result of the formal and informal use of urban space in African cities with special reference to Nairobi. The tensions referred to in this study may be explained in the wider theoretical framework of competing economies characterized by conflicts within them. Indeed, the conflict theory, (1) in what has been identified as a stratified economy (the formal in its superior position dating back to the colonial times and the informal in its inferior position from colonial times to the present), may help explain the continuing tensions in what should otherwise be seen as a national or one urban economy. Understanding the two forms of economy is akin to understanding a class system within a given society (the informal representing the working class and the formal representing the upper class, or to use Marx's terminology, "those owning the means of production"). The tensions and conflict for urban space, administrative recognition, and market position should be understood as an ongoing muzzling for a recognized economic position for each of the two.

The formal sector, which has been around much longer and has been recognized by the state, especially the colonial state, has continued to yield privileges and preferences that the informal sector cannot afford to take for granted. The latter has had to fight for recognition and has had to justify its existence, especially in proving that it is indeed worthy of recognition as one that is also making positive contributions to the economy. The debate of a dualistic economy has been around since the 1970s.2 Whereas that debate did indeed recognize and give credence to the existence of the informal economy in the developing countries, the description of the sector was mainly suggestive of survival strategies that the poor of many Third World cities had adopted. Studies by Hart (3) on street vendors in Accra, Birbeck (4) on sanitation workers in Cali, and the ILO (5) on Nairobi, suggest that the informal sector mainly provided survival opportunities for the poor and could not be considered a critical and integral part of the economies of these countries. However, studies in the late 1980s and 1990s by Castells and Portes, (6) De Soto, (7) Macharia, (8) and Moser (9) expanded the debate and showed that the informal sector is an important contributor to each country's national development effort. In addition to the fact that it provides employment opportunities for a large section of the population, it also contributes significantly to national output.

Instead of looking at the informal economy as providing merely survival opportunities for the urban poor, the studies mentioned earlier show that this sector is a collection of highly dynamic and unregulated markets, which offer their participants significant opportunities for the generation of wealth. Within the informal sector, one can find many highly motivated and skilled entrepreneurs engaged in diverse income-generating activities. The productivity of many of these entrepreneurs often exceeds that of participants in the formal sector. Although most of the people engaged in the informal sector are generally poor, it is important to note that participation in the informal sector includes people from virtually all sectors of society. Perhaps, most important is the fact that there exists a strong symbiotic linkage between the formal and the informal sectors, with individuals switching between the two, even in the same working day. For example, in Nairobi, it is not unusual for government officials or private-sector executives, to take up informal sector activities shortly after they return from their formal-sector occupations in the late afternoon. University professors can be found operating so-called "gypsy taxi" services in the late afternoon after completing lectures at the university. Other formal sector workers in Nairobi operate small shops in their neighborhoods and engage in various other forms of business in the informal sector to supplement their incomes. …

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