The state of Lagos in Nigeria decided to embrace de Soto’s “Legalist” idea of development and to start a process of mass formalization of the informal sector. I don’t know if Hernando de Soto will go there in person, but his Peru-based think tank – the Institute of Liberty and Democracy- is involved in the project. From an article in This Day Live:

The Lagos State Government has begun a comprehensive reform process, which it designed to formalise about 90 per cent assets currently locked in the state’s informal sector.

the state government had trained more than 100 enumerators in collaboration with the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD), Peru to assist in data collation and information gathering under the state’s informal sector reform initiative.

.. Raji [Ministry of Commerce and Industry] said the state government was interested in having comprehensive information about the sector, and know why most people choose to operate informally, and, then work out modalities that will help in formulation policies that will encourage their migration to the formal sector.

Giving more recognition to informal operators is undoubtedly a good thing, but I wonder how far this can go. The Legalist school argues that formalizing property rights in the informal sector would trigger a virtuous cycle: business formalization turns “dead capital” (i.e. capital without property rights) into real collateral. Real collateral allows access to formal finance and new markets. Increased access to formal finance encourages business investments. Increased investments … I bet you can guess the rest of the story.

I used to like de Soto’s ideas, and to some extent I still do: as simple as they are, they point to the right direction – informal economies have a large development potential. But I turned more critical when I realized that his simple arguments have transformed into an over-simplification of reality. The equation “business registration=formalization” neglects that most activities in the informal economy are sustained by an infrastructure of (non-formal) regulatory, financial and welfare institutions beyond the reach of official governance. The central question raised in Lagos, “to know why most people choose to operate informally, and, then … encourage their migration to the formal sector” misses the point. The question should be reversed: we should try to understand how informal firms and their institutions work in practice, and to determine how formal institutions can “scale-down” and become appropriate for their needs – definitely not the other way around.