Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Saturday marks the fourth International Street Vendors Day, celebrating an estimated billion-plus informal merchants.
When I think of street vendors, my mind immediately takes me to New York City, where hot dog and halal food carts dot the sidewalks and where the sweet smell of roasted peanuts and egg waffles permeate the air. On every block, if someone isn’t selling food, they’re drawing tourists in with tables full of hats, paintings, and other souvenirs.
International Street Vendors Day has been celebrating such sellers every year on November 14 since 2012. There may be more than a billion street merchants across the globe, selling everything from goat milk to SIM cards to auto repair services. Some entice potential customers with fancy carts, while others let the products advertise themselves.
According to rough estimates from 2012, there are 1.8 billion people in what’s called “the informal economy,” and together, they’re part of a $10 trillion industry. But those are conservative numbers, says journalist Robert Neuwirth, who cited the stats in his 2012 TED Talk on the power of the informal economy. The truth is, it’s incredibly hard to get a clear count on street vendors around the globe. Some countries don’t keep tabs, and in the ones that do, street vendors are likely under-reported.
With the lack of data comes misconceptions of who street vendors are. "People tend to confuse them with drug dealers or people doing nefarious things or trying to rip you off with a bait and switch,” says Neuwirth, who spent four years with street vendors and other providers of “informal” goods and services for his 2012 book, Stealth of Nations, The Global Rise of the Informal Economy. “By and large, that's not who street vendors are at all.”
Some laws even see them as criminals. Los Angeles, for example, has banned street vending, pushing anywhere from 10,000 o 50,000 vendors off of streets, sidewalks, and parks. And a cap on vending permits in NYC has led the majority of hawkers to operate illegally, which means they’re subjected to everything from hefty fines to police harassment.
But Neuwirth says the definition of street vendors is simple, and shouldn’t be associated with criminality. “They're folks trying to sell things just like people who try to sell things in a store,” he says.
In fact, informal merchants not only make a city more vibrant—cities like New York City, Delhi, and Lagos just wouldn’t be the same without street vendors—they also play a key role the urban economy, particularly in the developing world. What some might not realize is that the informal economy is intertwined with the formal one.
“Everyone's doing business with everyone else,” he says. “The guy I know who sells bags of water on the side of the road in Lagos, Nigeria, sometimes buys his lunch from a fast food restaurant, so he's paying into the legal economy even though he's living in the shadows.”
In Brazil, there are stores that specialize in hand trucks and food carts. Even big western companies like Proctor and Gamble and Unilever get their products sold in favelas, through informal vendors, he adds.
Plus, there’s that special human connection made between street vendors and their repeat customers—one that you won’t likely find in your local supermarket—that adds a lot to a city.
At the end of the day, “they’re trying to do this risky and amazing thing to try to survive, so why are we treating that as if it's bad?” Neuwirth asks.“Can't we just salute what it is—which is people working really hard.”
In honor of International Street Vendors Day, we’ve pulled together some photos of what street vendors look like around the world.