Agenda-Setting Research Conference

speaker at Agenda-Setting Research conferenceOver the past decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in the informal economy as it continues to grow and to appear in new guises around the world. More institutions and individuals have begun to do research on the informal economy. Many of them begin by asking questions regarding the definition, composition, and causal explanation of the informal economy.

The WIEGO Network felt the time was ripe for collective thinking by a select group of established scholars from different disciplines, and with different perspectives on informality, to identify key questions, gaps, and puzzles regarding the informal economy for future research to address. WIEGO organized a two-day agenda-setting research conference in Cape Town, South Africa on March 24-25, 2011.

Sixty researchers from 17 countries took part in the conference, which
focused on informality from different disciplines, countries, themes, and groups of workers. Panelists and pparticipants WIEGO conferencearticipants reflected on recent trends and specified key unanswered questions and promising areas for future research. The aim was to identify a critical new agenda for the next generation of research on the informal economy.

To anchor this conference, WIEGO decided to focus on three countries: India, Mexico, and South Africa. WIEGO has worked closely in these countries with the producers of official statistics to improve labour force and other economic statistics; with data analysts and other researchers to analyze the official data; and with member-based organizations of informal workers to use the data and research findings in their advocacy efforts.

Also, in these countries WIEGO researchers, mainstream economists from (mainly) Cornell University, and organizers from the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) have held Exposure Dialogues, during which participants spent two days and nights with a working poor person and her family, working alongside them. Afterward, the participants discussed the fit (or lack thereof) between selected economic theories or policies and the reality of work observed during the exposure. Members of the Exposure Dialogue group were invited to the agenda-setting conference. The plan was that the research agenda coming out of the research conference would not be limited to India, Mexico and South Africa, but would be informed by and grounded in the in-depth knowledge of informality in these three countries.

Read the Conference Report, which contains a summary of the presentations and links.

Going Forward

From all accounts the conference was a great success, in part because the design called for reflections rather than presentations, and in part because the participants were willing to reflect individually beforehand and collectively at the conference on a common set of questions and issues. The calibre of the participants and the quality of debate were very high, leading to an important set of questions and themes for future research.

The conference generated interest in further collaboration and in specific follow-up research projects. As well, ideas for future statistical analyses and related data collection emerged. The conference helped crystallize a research agenda around informality not only for WIEGO but for the broader group.