WIEGO Turns 15: Born in Bellagio, 1997

Ten founders of WIEGO in Bellagio

In mid-April 1997, 10 specialists on the informal economy – a mix of practitioners, scholars, statisticians, and policymakers – met to plan a collaborative project in support of women workers and entrepreneurs in the informal economy.

The group consisted of:

  • Ela Bhatt and Renana Jhabvala, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
  • Marty Chen (Harvard University)
  • Marilyn Carr (UNIFEM)
  • Grace Bediako (United Nations Statistical Division)
  • Jacques Charmes (L'Institut Francais pour le Developpement en Cooperation)
  • Maxine Olson (UNIFEM)
  • William “Biff” Steel (World Bank)
  • Jane Tate (HomeNet)
  • S.Y. Sethuraman (ILO).

The 10 specialists who took part in the four-day meeting, held at the Rockefeller Foundation Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy, brought together a remarkable breadth and depth of experience of working with informal workers or on the informal economy. And they shared a common concern: namely, that official statistics and mainstream policy makers do not adequately understand or value the contribution of informal workers, especially women workers, to national economies. As a result, little attention is paid to how policies affect women workers in the informal economy or how their situation can be improved.

The specialists met to plan a collaborative project that would promote a better understanding and appreciation of women workers in the informal economy. The project was to be implemented by a coalition of organizations and individuals drawn from member-based organizations of informal workers, research institutions, and international development agencies and governed by a steering committee comprised of the 10 specialists plus selected others (including representatives of home-based worker and street vendor organizations). The project goals were to promote better statistical accounting and research, stronger organizations and networks, and supportive policies and programmes for women workers in the informal economy. The founders named the project “Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing” (or WIEGO, for short).

Most of the defining features of WIEGO today were part of the original plan: notably, the three constituencies (member-based organizations of informal workers, researchers and statisticians, development professionals) and the three key functions (building networks of organizations of informal workers, promoting better statistics and research, and advocating for supportive policies and programmes). But the founders did not anticipate that the WIEGO project would transform into a global action-research-policy network that would continue to grow and evolve over the next 15 years. 

It is fair to say that WIEGO today far exceeds the expectations of our founders. To get a sense of WIEGO’s accomplishments over the past 15 years, please explore our website. To get a feel of the founding meeting, please see the report of that meeting plus a limerick written by Biff Steel, one of the founders, who still serves on the WIEGO Board and who still writes limericks after every WIEGO meeting he attends.

15 Years Later

In June 2012, WIEGO's Board, many members of the Team and external guests met at the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio, Italy to reflect on the achievements to date and chart the course forward. Read more.