Pambazuka News recently published a report on how the Rwandan government is using harassment, force and imprisonment to clamp down on street vendors in the capital, Kigali. It is a classic demonstration of the predatory, violent and parasitic nature of the State which deserves some comment.
Street vendors are a ubiquitous presence in African cities. While walking or driving along any main street, you will pass a multitude of men, women and children offering all kinds of items, from water, juice, sweets, gum and savory snacks to shoes, clothes, newspapers, and mobile phone credit. These traders don’t wait for you to come to them, they go to where you are, and will even run after your car or bus to complete a sale! This mobility gives them a major advantage over stationary businesses (although obviously the latter can offer a wider range of stock). It’s clearly hard work with long days, and it can’t be good for them to be breathing in those exhaust fumes on a daily basis. But this activity provides them with a means to generate a valuable income which they can then use for whatever they wish.
However, many ‘development’ experts view these people as a problem, mainly because they do not give any money to the State coffers. They form part of the ‘informal’ sector which employs a large chunk of Africans and which due to it’s ephemeral nature, States are unable to control and exact tribute from. In the UK, we would call this ‘cash-in-hand’ work as distinct from the wages system that most of us are under whereby our earnings are processed by payroll departments who to siphon off 30-40% in taxes on behalf of the state.
Largely in order to deal with this ‘problem’, the Rwandan government has opened several designated markets in the capital city, Kigali where vendors have to pay a fee in order to sell their wares. But of course, the government is not relying on persuasion to encourage vendors to use these markets. With the typical zeal of bureaucratic, top-down planners, the government has declared it illegal for anyone to trade in the streets, and sends its armed men (police) to hunt down and any of these ‘illegal’ traders. Those who are caught have their goods confiscated and are sent away to camps (it’s not a prison though!) for unspecified periods for ‘development’ and ‘rehabilitation’.
This is a classic case of how states get in the way of people using their initiative to make a living. They are not happy to simply provide a framework in which people can find their own independent solutions to the challenges of poverty such as street vending. Instead, they want to control peoples’ activities so as to take money from them in the form of taxes, no doubt to then use for ‘poverty-reduction’ and ‘development’ schemes dreamed up by its ‘experts’.
As Charles W. Johnson points out in his provocative and powerful article Scratching By: How Government creates Poverty as we know it: “the one thing that the government and its managerial aid workers will never do is just get out of the way and let poor people do the things that poor people naturally do, and always have done, to scratch by.”