Informal Economies: Reflections from a recent delegation to Nicaragua.
Eduardo was a kindly, almost courtly, man who drove the van for our group in the Witness for Peace Delegation to Nicaragua in January of 2012. He was kindly enough to help me, a 67-year-old woman from Kansas, get in and out of the van, and more importantly, he also recognized and assisted his countrymen and women who eked out a living or supplemented their meager wages in the informal economy. Whenever we left our hostel and stopped at a nearby intersection, Eduardo paid a man to wash the van’s windshield and sometimes he also purchased a newspaper from another individual. There were coins in a cup holder in the front of the van apparently for that purpose. I was familiar with the informal economy although I did not know the term until I was introduced to it by Witness for Peace. In fact, I had some experience with the informal economy on a short trip to India in 2010. In India, I felt beleaguered, accosted, and pressured by people selling items on the street near tourist destinations, and in one instance, I was irritated by a young man who followed my friend and me for several blocks attempting to sell drums. I felt I was quite clear when I told him that I didn’t need or want a drum, that I had no way of getting a drum back to the US, but still he persisted. Finally, he gave up, but I wondered why this young man didn’t accept, “No thank you, I do not want a drum,” when he first approached us. At that point, I was operating under the developed country’s desires- of- the- consumer, rather than the needs- of -the -seller mentality, a hallmark of US consumerism characterized by its lack of concern for the people on the bottom rung of the economic ladders in the developing world. The young man needed to sell those drums and I should have purchased one and given it to a child. My purchase would have been part of my contribution to and participation in the informal economy of India. I was certainly contributing to the formal economy by staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and paying entrance fees at tourist destinations.
In Nicaragua, I came to understand the reasons that poor people, sometimes accompanied by their children, sold newspapers, snacks, and washed windshields while standing in the swirl of traffic. I had visited a free trade zone, viewed a fair trade cooperative in a free trade zone, and observed the many ways that poor Nicaraguans struggled to support their families. I remembered a NY Times piece on ethical behavior in a developing country in which the writer suggested that ethical travelers might want to pay for services they would normally do for themselves. I wanted to be an ethical traveler, and as volunteer for Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer, I intellectually understood the organization’s mission for providing fair wages so that workers in developing countries could provide for their families. I knew that I was committed to social justice. Clearly in both India and Nicaragua there are not enough job opportunities with fair wages, and poor people are unable to provide for their families by working in the formal economy. While in India, I was not yet prepared to see my role in supporting the informal economy, but my experiences in Nicaragua changed my perspective. I hope to continue my travels in the developing world, and I want some of those travels to be with Witness for Peace. I know that when I travel, I will contribute to the country’s economy in both formally and informally-- lessons I learned from Witness for Peace and Eduardo. Finally as an ethical traveler, I want to share that knowledge in the US in both formal and informal settings by encouraging my friends and neighbors to buy fair trade products, by incorporating my experiences into the community and school presentations which I make for Ten Thousand Villages, and by promoting Witness for Peace and its delegations. Those efforts represent my personal transformation from my ten-day trip.