[URBANTH-L]REV: Arbona on Roy & Al Sayyad, eds., _Urban Informality_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Thu Jun 9 12:50:15 EDT 2005

[x-posted from H-Urban]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (June, 2005)

Ananya Roy and Nezar Al Sayyad, eds. _Urban Informality: Transnational
Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia_.
Lexington Books. 2004. vii + 338pp. Illustrations, references, index.
ISBN 0-7391-0740-2 (cloth); ISBN 0-7391-0741-0 (pbk).

Reviewed for H-Urban by Juan Manuel Arbona <jarbona at brynmawr.edu>, Bryn
Mawr College

Urban Informalization

The debates about informality span more than three decades (ILO, 1972;
Hart, 1973). For a long period, scholars and international development
institutions attempted to establish a clear definition of informality
and the line separating formal from informal, with the goal of
modernizing (eradicating) the latter. These debates privileged (and for
good reasons) the economic dynamics surrounding these activities, but
"did not directly tackle the spatial aspects of urbanization and the
emerging forms of urbanism" (1). Similarly, the vast body of literature
addressing issues of informality focused on Latin America, ignoring
insights from other regional contexts. It is in this context that
_Urban Informality_ is a welcomed and much needed collection of essays.
One of the central themes of the book is that informality is a "new
paradigm for understanding urban culture" (9) embedded in an
"organizing logic which emerges under a paradigm of liberalization"
(16). Urban informality is understood as being more than economic
transactions or forms of organizing production outside the state's
regulatory framework. In Third World cities, and increasingly in the
rest of the world, informality permeates into the organization of urban
space, political institutions, policy regimes, and trans-national
(trans-border) dynamics. In this sense, _Urban Informality_ underscores
the tensions resulting from the promises, the practices, the outcome
of, and response to several generations of liberalization policies
(Brenner and Theodore, 2002).

The book is divided into three sections: the processes of
liberalization informing the informalization of urban space; the
localized political implications of informality; and transnational
ramifications of informality.  While the essays are uneven in their
theoretical depth, they do address important questions in the study of
cities, and provide important insights on how informality has become
the norm rather than the exception.

The first section aims to provide some context to the processes of
urban informalization as the concrete intersection of the promises and
practices of liberalization. The essays in this section suggest a
causal relation between liberalization and informality, and point to
the social tensions and localized responses informality generates.
Gilbert explores the relationship between liberalization and
informality. He argues and provides evidence of how the implementation
of (neo) liberal policies under the aegis of the World Bank and
International Monetary Fund dismantled many of the political and
economic structures that led to an expansion of informality. The author
points to the contradictory essence of liberalization.  While it sought
to promote globally competitive cities, liberalization resulted in a
situation (for individuals and government alike) in which informality
was the only way to generate income, secure adequate housing, or
sustain political legitimacy.

Hasan builds on this general premise to discuss the case of Karachi,
Pakistan. The author argues that since the liberalization of the
national economy, informality has expanded to most activities such as
recycling of solid waste, education and medical care. Hasan explores
the implications of the expansion in informality on those individuals
that already depend on the informal economy and on the (consumption)
aspiration of the middle classes. In other words, the middle class is
more dependent on the informal economy not only to generate income, but
also as a means of performing its class position.

In the last essay of this section, Bayat presents a compelling analysis
of the subtleties of informality described as a simultaneous process of
integration and social exclusion. Similar to what Roy (2003) described
as the "negotiation of poverty", Bayat focuses on "quiet encroachment"
as a way dispel the "myth of powerlessness" and to explain how those
dependent on the informal economy do have agency. Building from Scott's
(1985) analysis of everyday forms of resistance, Bayat sees the quiet
encroachment as a "largely atomized and prolonged mobilization with
episodic collective action" (90). This encroachment has direct
implications not only for the spatial organization of cities, but also
for the political strategies deployed by municipal governments and
informal producers alike.

The second group of essays highlights how informality is an
increasingly important articulator of political actors, pivotal in the
organization of urban spaces. A point shared by these chapters is that
political institutions are increasingly relying on informality as a
tool of coercion and consent. The importance of the role of informality
in politics (Cross, 1998) stems from the recognition by government
institutions and political parties that their own political survival
rests on a carefully choreographed balance between the liberalization
of (land, real estate) markets required to promote a globally
competitive city and the political gestures of support to those unable
to access its benefits.  Perlman revisits the sites and people of her
groundbreaking study that challenged the argument that poverty is a
natural event related to the work habits of the poor, instead of a
result of their being "stigmatized and excluded from a closed class
system" (121). Over three decades after the publication of "The Myth of
Marginality", Perlman stresses how the promises of the democratic
opening have gone unfulfilled for the residents of the favelas, even
though there has been an improvement in infrastructure and an increase
in household goods and appliances. One of the important points raised
by Perlman and picked up in Roy's chapter is how political parties rely
on informality to sustain and reproduce social and spatial
inequalities. Roy presents the case of Calcutta (Kolkata) and how
political parties (particularly the Communist Party of India Marxists)
selectively support certain squatter settlements as a way to extract
political consent and resources for basic infrastructural improvements.
However, once there is a market demand for this land, the state
reclaims it in the name of urban development and previous residents are
relocated. The importance of Roy's chapter is in the way she uses the
idea of the "gentleman's city" to discuss how informality (absence of
land titles and maps) is used as a political tool important not only in
the organization of urban space, but also in the negotiation of gender

If Roy emphasizes how informality is used as a political tool to
extract consent, Yaftachel and Yakobi highlight how it is also used as
a tool of coercion. Their chapter discusses how the BeerSheva, Israel
municipal government relies on informality and "planning (or lack of
it) as an instrument of ethnic control" (234). In the drive to expand
and consolidate territories, informality is used in conjunction with
planning to legitimize or limit access to land and basic services
resulting in the "condemnation of large communities to unserviced,
deprived, and stigmatized urban fringes" (218). However, and echoing
Bayat and Roy, Yaftachel and Yakobi note how the Bedouin-Arab residents
use informality as a form of resistance, albeit from a very different
position of power. While the previous authors see informality
(selective forms of regulation) as a political tool, Soliman, who
subscribes to the legalistic school of thought championed by Hernando
de Soto, argues that informality is a problem and can only be address
by a process of (liberalized) legalization. This line of argument
dismisses the connections between liberalization and informalization
presented in previous chapters, and echoes the promise that only
through liberalization can a proper private property regime be
established, which in turn would "allow the private developers to
construct or speculate on vacant available land within informal areas"

The discussion of the legal implications of informality continues in
one of the chapters in the last section that focuses on the
transnational dimensions of informality. The chapter by Bromley takes
direct aim at the metaphors, assumptions (selective use of history),
and methodology presented in de Soto's latest work (and Soliman's
chapter).  The central criticism is that "simply legalizing extra-legal
real estate does not institute a rule of law, and it does not guarantee
economic stability" (280). While the work of de Soto and others in the
legalistic school of thought suggests that legal propriety follows
international borders, Ward argues that informality is no longer (and
may have never been) the exclusive monopoly of the Third World. He
points to "new forms of informality that are emerging between social
groups, or within labor market niches within society, thereby
intensifying the segmentation of people in the same socio-economic
class" (245).  Ward focuses on colonias (settlements) on several cities
along the US-Mexico border, and describes how there is a market for
self-help housing that takes advantage of the inability or lack of
willingness of government institutions to help low-income households.

The last chapter moves from international borders to academic borders,
asking how we teach about (represent) informality without reproducing
the "aestheticization of poverty". The author warns against the threat
of a pedagogical approach to urban informality that privileges "an
aesthetic and aestheticized (rather than political) relationship
between viewer and viewed, between professional and city, between First
and Third Worlds" (302).

This book should be an important companion to a course on urban
perspectives on political and economic restructuring in the Third
World.  The contributions of this set of essays fall in line with other
important publications on the discussion and debates on informality
(Portes, Castells, and Benton, 1989; Rakowski, 1994). The majority of
authors do not necessarily advocate for the eradication of informality,
but highlight the tendency to negatively and disproportionately affect
those with limited economic means and access to political institutions.
Furthermore, the authors point to the ways in which informality is
becoming a central process in the spatial, social, political, and
economic organization of cities. In her chapter Perlman captures what
is at stake in the ways policy-makers and academics address this issue:
"the real policy challenge may be to move away from paternalism and
toward universalistic rights, entitlements, and guarantees" (127).

[1]. International Labour Organization (ILO), _Employment, Incomes and
Equality: A Strategy for Increasing Productive Employment in Kenya_
(Geneva: ILO, 1972).

[2].Keith Hart, "Informal income opportunities and urban employment in
Ghana," _ The Journal of Modern African Studies_ 11 (1973): pp. 61-89.

[3]. Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, "Cities and the geographies of
'actually existing neoliberalism'," _ Antipode_ 34 (2002): pp. 349-379.

[4]. John Cross, _Informal Politics: Street Vendors and the State in
Mexico City_ (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[5]. Ananya Roy, _City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of
Poverty_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[6]. Alejandro Portes, Manuel Castells, Laurie Benton, _ The Informal
Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries_ (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

[7] Cathy Rakowski, _ Contrapunto: The Informal Sector Debate in Latin
America_ (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).

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