Inclusive Cities and the Urban Informal Economy

Raúl Ríos Ascencio is a waste picker and leader of Asochapineroan affiliate of the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB), an organization of waste pickers associations and cooperatives that advocates for waste pickers' rights.
Photo: Juan Arredondo/Getty Images Reportage

To work for more inclusive cities, WIEGO engages at multiple levels – carrying out action research and focused activities with membership-based organizations (MBOs) of informal workers in select cities, and bringing the insights and demands of informal workers into global agenda-setting processes. This page provides a preview of this work. To access WIEGO’s full knowledge base on inclusive cities, and to explore a range of tools, research findings and recommendations derived from our work with urban informal workers, visit our Inclusive Cities and the Urban Informal Economy site.

Urban Informal Economy: Contributions and Challenges

Within developing countries, over half of the urban work force is informal. Urban informal workers make economic, environmental, social and cultural contributions to the cities where they work. For example, street vendors provide an accessible source of low-cost goods and services to city residents; home-based workers add value to domestic and international supply chains; domestic workers make it possible for others – especially women – to join the formal workforce; and waste pickers provide a critical environmental service through the collection, sorting and re-use of waste that would otherwise be destined for landfills.

The activities of informal workers are not resource-intensive and leave a small environmental footprint. Contrary to mainstream assumptions, many urban informal workers contribute to national and municipal revenue by paying fees for the use of public space, and through paying value-added taxes on inputs and raw materials. Urban informal workers also add vibrancy to public space, and can play a role in preserving cultural heritage, by keeping alive public markets that may date back centuries, for example.

Despite these contributions, informal work is often stigmatized by municipal authorities and the general public as being illegal or unproductive. Many municipal governments across the world have responded to informality by seeking to eliminate it – through evictions, fines, or restrictive regulations – or by ignoring it altogether in city and economic planning.

More productive and equitable cities are created when the contributions of urban informal workers are recognized, when informal workers are involved in decision-making and rule-setting processes, and when their livelihoods are integrated into local economic and urban plans. Through dialogue and negotiation with municipal governments, and through their engagement in global agenda-setting processes, informal workers and their representative organizations have made significant progress towards this vision.

Focal Cities

WIEGO supports informal workers’ organizations in several cities around the world. Specifically, WIEGO has long-standing Focal Cities projects in Lima, Peru and Accra, Ghana. In 2016 – 2017 additional Focal Cities projects were started in Bangkok, Thailand; Dakar, Senegal; Delhi, India and Mexico City, Mexico.

Learn more about WIEGO’s Focal Cities Initiative.

Lima, Peru

Paulina Luza (centre, in pink sweater), Secretary General of Peru’s Domestic Workers’ Union (Sindicato de Trabajadoras del Hogar del Perú, SINTRAHOGARP) at the union’s headquarters with members of the organization. In Lima, WIEGO has worked with MBOs of workers representing seven sectors: street vendors, market vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers, newspaper vendors, market porters and shoe-shiners. The main project activities in Lima have centered on strengthening the voice and influence of informal workers in policy-making processes, improving occupational health and safety for informal workers, and promoting legal empowerment of workers. As part of this process, WIEGO has supported MBOs in engaging in dialogue and negotiating with local government, national ministries, incoming political parties and formal trade unions, sometimes through sustained platforms, referred to as “mesas.”

Learn more about WIEGO’s work in Lima.

Accra, Ghana

Juliana Brown Afari leads a meeting of the Makola Market Traders Union at Makola Market. In Accra, WIEGO works with MBOs of street and market vendors, head loaders and waste pickers. The project activities in Accra have been focused on occupational health and safety in informal markets and strengthening the capacity of MBOs to engage in policy dialogues with local government, incoming political parties and other relevant stakeholders. 

Learn more about WIEGO’s work in Accra.

Bogota, Colombia

Members of several waste pickers associations in Bogotá demonstrate to protest city policies and programmes affecting waste pickers.In Bogota, WIEGO works closely with the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (Bogota Waste Pickers Association or ARB). WIEGO’s work with ARB focuses on expanding and strengthening the inclusive model of waste management that ARB pioneered there. WIEGO supports the efforts of the ARB to replicate the model in cities across Colombia, to develop certification schemes for waste pickers, and to engage in ongoing advocacy efforts to protect their gains, among other things.

  • Read more about the struggle for an inclusive recycling model in Bogota.
  • Watch the video series Chronicle of a Fight for Inclusion.
  • Read more about WIEGO’s work in Bogota on our Spanish website (en Español).
  • Learn more about WIEGO’s work with AeT.
  • Read about the struggle to save Warwick Junction Market.
  • Photos above: Juan Arredondo/Getty Images Reportage (Lima and Bogota) Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage (Accra)

    Durban, South Africa

    Warwick Junction MarketIn Durban, WIEGO has worked closely with Asiye eTafuleni (AeT), a non-profit organization focused on supporting sustainable urban livelihoods. AeT is based out of Warwick Junction Market, located in Durban’s inner city transport interchange. AeT engages both informal workers from Warwick Junction, and allied professionals, in collaborative efforts on inclusive urban design, legal education and advocacy, among other things. WIEGO has supported and collaborated with AeT on a range of efforts, including the development of a legal rights awareness programme for market vendors, and ongoing advocacy work.

    Global Advocacy

    During 2015 – 2016, the WIEGO Network participated in the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (referred to as Habitat III), a consultative process held every twenty years to reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable development. The outcome of the Habitat III process was the New Urban Agenda, (NUA) a document that sets global standards and priorities for future equitable, sustainable urban development.
    The aim of WIEGO in the Habitat III process was to make visible the contributions of urban informal workers to cities, and to advocate for urban policies that recognize and include informal livelihoods. WIEGO’s engagement included serving as co-chair of the Grassroots Partners Constituency Group of the General Assembly or Partners, and participating in policy units and a range of regional, thematic and preparatory meetings around the globe. In addition, the WIEGO MBO Network developed a collective platform outlining principles and actions for national and local governments to implement the NUA to be supportive of informal workers.

    Learn more about WIEGO’s engagement in Habitat III.

    Informal Economy Monitoring Study

    The Informal Economy Monitoring Study (IEMS) was carried out by WIEGO team and partners in ten cities to evaluate the realities of urban informal workers, to examine their contributions, linkages to the formal economy, and to examine whether governments, institutions, and MBOs help or hinder their livelihoods and lives. The IEMS was carried out in partnership with MBOs in each of the ten cities, and employed an action research approach that used both qualitative and quantitative research methods.
    The resulting IEMS reports provide an in-depth understanding of how home-based workers, street vendors, and waste pickers are affected by economic trends, urban policies and practices, value chain dynamics, and other economic and social forces.

    See the IEMS reports.

    Read a two-page brochure on concrete outcomes of the IEMS.