Thursday, March 20, 2008

In the fight against street traders, the problem is us

Here lies perhaps the most honest argument regarding the conflict between city governments and unlicensed street hawkers. (This fight first came to light after the city of Dakar attempted to evict the street peddlers, but every city in West Africa has the problem.)

Some may argue these vendors selling their goods on the side of the road pose a nuisance (and worsen traffic); others may claim street hawkers are merely innovative entrepreneurs providing a necessary service to their clients; finally, there are those who point out that if these (mostly young) people couldn’t sell goods on the side of the road, no other economic opportunities would exist for them.

Everybody is correct here, but it doesn’t come closer to curing the problem. Creating jobs and economic development would be nice, but people have been saying that for decades. In some ways, this debate reminds me about the war against prostitution. Locking up prostitutes won’t solve anything. If you want to solve the prostitution dilemma, you must go after the clients.

From Dr. Khumalo in the Concord Times:

I suspect some hypocrisy in the way we tend to address very important social issues. Most people tend to portray street trading in a very negative light and are ready to scold government for not urgently addressing it. But honestly, given the scale of street trading in and around the city, and our participation in it, does it not make one wonder whether any government will be able to curb it? As usual, many people see an easy solution to street trading; government must create new markets around the city and traders will be persuaded to go to those markets. Yes this is indeed plausible given the recent achievement in other African countries. But street trading in Sierra Leone will take much more than just creating markets and forcing hawkers to move to those markets.

Probably even the entire army deplored at the city centre cannot stop hawkers, because it is much more an issue of survival as it is cultural.

If we are honest with ourselves, it probably may be less than one percent of the population that does not buy from hawkers. Every now and then, in taxes, poda-poda and private cars, we anticipate the traffic slow down or deliberately break traffic rules just to buy a few essentials from hawkers. We find it less burdensome to buy from street traders than taking time to go to the often busy and unhealthy markets to buy our stuff. But we are simply being rational to behave that way given the fact that no reasonable human being prefers inconvenience to comfort, although buying from hawkers itself is fraught with some risks. We would prefer to buy from the streets and avoid the threat of pickpockets that now occupy the few crowded markets around town. Thus culturally, we have been used to the idea of hawkers going around announcing their goods at our homes. In the villages and many big towns today (perhaps to some extent the city where "Ernest power" is fluctuating) we are still familiar to the cries of small boys selling kerosene in the evening. We like to be heralded to goods; fish dae! Ah geh dee sawa sawa!

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