x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Immense economy hides in plain sight

The Life: Robert Neuwirth's examination of an economy hiding in plain sight is as topical as it is illuminating.

Book Review: Stealth of Nations by Robert Neuwirth

As Spain grapples with a crisis in its financial system, the government is turning a spotlight on millions of workers who operate under the government's radar.

The government is estimated to lose as much as €37 billion (Dh169.5bn) of potential revenue from an army of painters, plumbers and others working clandestinely outside the Spanish tax system.

Officials in Spain and scores of other countries around the world have redoubled their efforts to clamp down on the illegal trade as the global economy wobbles.

But many such workers feel that they have little choice. Out of work and with little chance of finding proper jobs in sickly economies, many see the informal sector as offering a lifeline for them to feed and clothe their families.

Robert Neuwirth's examination of Système D, as it is called in the francophone world, is as topical as it is illuminating.

Most casual readers will have only a vague awareness of the sector, but many will be surprised by just how vital a cog it is in the world economy. Using his decades of skill as a reporter, Mr Neuwirth uncovers the often colourful characters operating in the murky economic underworld.

Not surprisingly, they are often ordinary people just trying to get by. Take Jadira, a Brazilian mother who sells scores of home-made cakes every day at a Sao Paulo street market to help to pay for her children's education and a house outside the city.

Mr Neuwirth also demonstrates the global reach of the informal sector. He encounters David, a Nigerian who ships power generators from his adopted home in Guangzhou, China, back to Africa.

The author also argues, at times convincingly, that such is the collective clout of these workers that governments should turn a blind eye or formalise the sector.

But his argument misses one thing. While Système Dmight help to ease the plight of the individual, it may not be enough to create enough prosperity to drive societies forward.


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