Now that the vendors in front of Stabroek Market have been relocated to Hadfield and Lombard Streets, and the storm and fury has subsided, at least for the next three months when they are due to be evicted once again, it is hoped by then the administrations – both central and city – would have crafted a coherent policy to deal with the phenomenon. Vending, like poverty, to which it is evidently related, will always be with us.
After the abolition of slavery, as Georgetown’s population ballooned with the influx of the newly freed mass of humanity from the sugar plantations, Guyana was one of the early countries to confront what is now a global challenge: how do the authorities deal with vending and vendors as the world becomes increasingly urbanised. The United Nations projects more than 60 per cent of all humanity will live in cities by 2030. In Guyana, most of the new arrivals had to scrounge for the available menial labour and those who could not even find employment there – especially women who depended on being domestics in the town, turned to the informal sector. In the case of Guyana, this was primarily vending.
Even in the developed world, the financial sector and Information Technology are throwing large numbers of urban residents into the informal economy. In Guyana, Georgetown has never been able to provide adequate employment opportunities for its entire populace and vending continues into the present to provide succour for the poor and powerless. Studies confirm that street vending contributes to job creation, income generation, and distribution, and conveniently provides goods and services even to middle class persons adversely affected by the economic downturn. In this regard, street vending provides a viable alternative for subsistence living in urban areas, when formal employment as it is in Guyana is high. It also helps cut down crime, prostitution, and other antisocial activities.
Vending is attractive because, like other activities in the informal sector, it is characterised by ease of entry and self-employment while admittedly generating fairly low levels of income.
Despite a general belief that street vending will recede as economies develop and income rise, it is actually on the increase in many places and Guyana cannot wish it away. Numerous studies have shown that urban vendors represent a strata of entrepreneurial energy that if harnessed properly can provide employment opportunities to many of the poor and at the same time develop linkages with the formal economy.
The authorities therefore cannot continue to use vendors and vending as political football. In consultation with the vendors, they must craft policies and regulations in addition to providing services, infrastructure facilities and institutional support programmes for them. One researcher enumerated some of the specific tasks that must be accomplished to address the following challenges: “Difficulty in finding secure spaces to sell; harassment, demands for bribes, evictions from selling places, arrest, and confiscation of goods by authorities, who often see street vendors as a nuisance or obstruction to other commerce and to traffic. Also lack of services and infrastructure, such as water, electricity, waste removal, latrines, shelter, storage space, and financial services.”
But there are negative aspects of street vending that cannot be swept under the rug. As we know only too well in Guyana, street vendors are seen as creating congestion, undercutting formal businesses, by squatting on pavements or erecting structures, which are in violation of building codes and zoning regulations. When they squat on pavements they force crowds onto the streets and cause traffic hazards. Food vendors as especially noted for creating litter and garbage which can become health hazards.
In the short-term, City Hall has to identify commercially viable free spaces to accommodate vendors permanently and declare a limit to their numbers by licences. They should be identified by official badges that bear their photographs. There should be training programmes for street vendors that focus on entrepreneurship and creativity in addition to micro-credit services from financial institutions.