Taxing the touts?

You can’t escape the informal economy in African cities. On every street dozens of men, women boys and girls are out hawking everything from newspapers and batteries to tourist souvenirs and football shirts.

Their noise and vivacity are part of the make-up of Dakar, here in Senegal, but equally in Nairobi, Luanda, Dar-es-Salaam and Lusaka. They’ve been there for all the years I’ve been visiting and working in Africa. All that’s changed is the wares; mobile phone cards are now the most common item on the moving shop front of the sidewalk.

What’s been challenging governments and economist for almost as long is how to reap the benefit of their endeavours, how to grab a slice of the illicit action. Channel just a few small percentages of that action into the national economy and the amount available to spend on hospitals and education – or on the grand projects that some leaders are fond of — could increase considerably.

Numerous courses of actions have been considered. One that is currently under the review here in Senegal is to levy a small flat annual fee on the traders. How practical or enforceable it would be is uncertain. One can foresee many difficulties in gathering such a revenue, and of ensuring that all proceeds accrued to the national coffer.

Certainly the traders would be reluctant to pay – Dakar is one of the forty most expensive cities in the world. Senegal is one of the eighteen poorest countries and surviving here is an art for many.

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