Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Driven from the markets

In some parts of Africa, it seems to be open season on street traders this week. The governments of both Malawi and Liberia have waged war against what they consider to be a scourge.

The Malawi government used tear gas to disperse a prayer meeting convoked to protest the ban on the hawkers. There were battles between vendors and police in the country's two main cities Lillongwe and Blantyre.

Liberian officials took it one step further. Police set fire to makeshift stalls in the eastern part of the capital Monrovia.

In both cases, the governments want traders to move to permanent structures well away from the city centers. They claim this will make the cities more orderly and reduce traffic congestion. But the vendors have rejected this, arguing they need to be where there customers are or else they won't make enough money to survive.

Bizarrely, the new police chief of Monrovia justified the action because "every human being in this country should have their rights; those who are walking on the sidewalks - poor people who do not have cars - have their rights; those who own cars, too, are supposed to ride the cars, it is their right."

What about the right to sell goods? What about the right to make a living?

It's all well and good to make city centers more clean and orderly. But the bottom line is that street traders serve a purpose. Most Malawians and Liberians do not have time to go well out of their way to distant markets on the edge of town; especially 'those poor people who do not have cars,' as the police chief put it.

So moving the vendors to out of the way places not only prevents them from scrapping out a meager existence but raises the cost of living for their customers as well.

This policy of 'out of sight, out of mind' does no favors to either the vendors or their customers. It's designed to make sure the poor are neither seen nor heard, so as not to trouble placid existence of the domestic elite or the foreign businessmen. And if everyone else can't make a living, oh well... at least there's order and cleanliness!

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