Sustainable livelihoods? The informal sector beyond Covid-19

By Søren Jeppesen


The official reactions to Covid-19 have (so far) not been doing much for sustainable development (apart from lower CO2 emissions from air travel). Despite concerned voices criticizing the limited attention to combating climate change (‘environmental sustainability’) in the longer run, little impact on policy makers has been registered.


If we focus on ‘social sustainability’ the picture is similar. Discussing the social side of sustainability is part and parcel of assessing the situation in the informal sector and among the estimated two billion people reliant on their livelihoods through the informal activities across the Globe. Sadly, the situation has shown that this group of people and their families have suffered from the imposed restrictions due to Covid-19 (see here).

"While the negative impact on income and livelihoods probably is the most severe consequence of inability, lack of willingness (and in some cases maybe even sheer ignorance) among authorities, the events since March can also be viewed ‘an opportunity missed’ regarding (more) sustainable practices."

The classical example is waste handling where informal workers (or scavengers) are involved in waste collection, sorting and identifying material for recycling and reuse. The Indian system where almost all component of waste are sorted and reused is well-known. But additional examples are found in areas like minimizing food waste and establishing social safety nets (Tucker and Anantharaman, 2020). Had governments appreciated the role of the informal sector and the activities undertaken, the period since March could have been used to change towards a ‘sustainability footprint’.


So, instead of using the (unfortunate) challenge to aim for positive change why have governments then been so keen to do the opposite and merely lockdown the informal sector (including denying poor people of their meagre livelihoods)? As Tucker and Anantharaman (2020) argue, it might be due to informal work being perceived as a ‘deficit’ (lack of contracts, lack of permits, lack of tax payment, lack of this and lack of that). International organisations like ILO have long been arguing in favor of ‘formalization of the informal’ (ILO, 2019). And not to romanticize the informal sector, nevertheless it is intriguing that this is and has not been a sector perceived as ‘creative, agile, flexible’ and all the buzz that the present glorification of the private sector and individual initiative otherwise has been marked by.


Now, we can’t change what have been the typical type of reactions to the Covid-19 situation across the globe, but we do note that we have increasing social challenges ahead due to rising poverty levels, the naïve, optimistic wish for the New Year is that attention will be placed on how to engage the informal sector and all its resources in the strive for a more sustainable development path. It will not only open up the Pandora’s box regarding new and valuable ways on dealing with the Global trajectories, but could provide avenues for the informal sector to be reckoned as ‘a contributor’ (instead of ‘a deficit’).

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