The Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences hosted renowned cultural anthropologist and Middle East-North Africa expert Laurence Michalak Tuesday afternoon for a presentation on the role of the black market in Tunisian society.
The talk, “Merchants at the Margins: The Politics of Informal Commerce in Tunisia,” was presented by the Middle East Studies Program.
Michalak, who served as the vice chair at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley for 23 years, explained that a black market or “informal economy” is one where people don’t pay taxes and don’t declare their income — or, in other words, are not “on the books.” In defining the informal economy, however, Michalak stressed that though it is essentially an illegal practice, there are degrees of illegality.
“There are really bad parts of the informal economy, like smuggling drugs and arms,” Michalak said. “But on the other hand, there are things that are illegal but tolerated, such as vendors selling gasoline on the side of the road.”
Michalak’s research has focused on the way that the informal economy affects Tunisian society, and how this has changed since the Arab Spring. According to the World Bank, 53 percent of Tunisia’s employment and 38.4 percent of its GNP are in the informal sector, numbers that only increased after the 2011 Tunisian revolution.
“After the revolution, more people went to the informal sector because they needed a job and couldn’t feed their families,” Michalak said. “So they made themselves a job.”
Michalek said much of the motivation for entering the informal sector also arises out of a refusal to pay taxes that people believe will only go to support a corrupt government. According to Michalak, the informal economy is also tied to politics in Tunisia.
“Mohamed Bouazizi was selling fruits and vegetables illegally on the street, and the police confiscated his goods,” Michalak said. “So he set himself on fire, and that was the start of the Arab Spring — it all started in informal commerce.”
According to Michalak, people working in the informal sector have found creative and often surprising ways to make a living. Michalak described Tunisian women who would fly to Turkey and purchase clothing in bulk, then return to Tunisia to sell it “out of their living rooms.” He showed pictures of walls painted brightly with cartoon characters and explained that these were informal kindergartens, which are widespread throughout Tunisia, are not taxed, and are not sanctioned by the government.
“It’s a lot like the United States,” Michalak said. “Every country has a sector of its economy that’s informal.”
Michalak’s interest in studying informal economies arose out of his personal experience in Tunisia, and his desire to understand what drove so many people to pursue illegal channels of work and business.
“When I lived in Tunisia, I was right next to the street with the most vendors,” Michalak said. “I used to walk past these people every day. I used to stop and chat with them, and sometimes I would buy things from them. So it was a natural extension to study them.”
After Michalak’s presentation, Rym Kaki of the Sol Price School of Public Policy provided commentary on the future of the informal economy and the practical applications of Michalak’s research. Kaki acknowledged that an informal economy presents many problems, including exploitation of labor and a lack of safety regulations. However, she also stressed that though many current policies are aimed at developing ways to move people out of informal commerce, the “formal” economy brings its own share of problems, such as when governments fail to provide their people with services and protections. According to Kaki, more research needs to be done to develop solutions to poverty in Tunisia and the Middle East as a whole.
“Research provides us with the raw data, but we need to move beyond data and start an agenda for action,” Kaki said. “One person alone can’t make those changes — we want to work together on practical solutions.”