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TheShadowSuperpower
Forget China: the $10 trillion global black market is the world's fastest growing economy -- and its
future.
BY ROBERT NEUWIRTH | OCTOBER 28, 2011

With only a mobile phone and a promise of money from his uncle, David Obi did something the
Nigerian government has been trying to do for decades: He figured out how to bring electricity to the
masses in Africa's most populous country.
It wasn't a matter of technology. David is not an inventor or an
engineer, and his insights into his country's electrical problems
had nothing to do with fancy photovoltaics or turbines to
harness the harmattan or any other alternative sources of
energy. Instead, 7,000 miles from home, using a language he
could hardly speak, he did what traders have always done: made
a deal. He contracted with a Chinese firm near Guangzhou to
produce small diesel-powered generators under his uncle's
brand name, Aakoo, and shipped them home to Nigeria, where
Welcome to Bazaaristan
power is often scarce. David's deal, struck four years ago, was
Photos from the trillion shadow
economy
not massive -- but it made a solid profit and put him on a strong
footing for success as a transnational merchant. Like almost all
the transactions between Nigerian traders and Chinese manufacturers, it was also sub rosa: under
the radar, outside of the view or control of government, part of the unheralded alternative economic
universe of System D.

FOR MORE

You probably have never heard of System D. Neither had I until I started visiting street markets and
unlicensed bazaars around the globe.
System D is a slang phrase pirated from French-speaking Africa and the
Caribbean. The French have a word that they often use to describe

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Caribbean. The French have a word that they often use to describe
(40)
particularly effective and motivated people. They call them
SHARE:
débrouillards. To say a man is a débrouillard is to tell people how
Like 1.1k
resourceful and ingenious he is. The former French colonies have
sculpted this word to their own social and economic reality. They say
Twitter
that inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing
Reddit
business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the
Share
bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes, are part of
"l'economie de la débrouillardise." Or, sweetened for street use,
More...
"Systeme D." This essentially translates as the ingenuity economy, the
economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY,
economy. A number of well-known chefs have also appropriated the term to describe the skill and
sheer joy necessary to improvise a gourmet meal using only the mismatched ingredients that happen
to be at hand in a kitchen.
I like the phrase. It has a carefree lilt and some friendly resonances. At the same time, it asserts an
important truth: What happens in all the unregistered markets and roadside kiosks of the world is
not simply haphazard. It is a product of intelligence, resilience, self-organization, and group
solidarity, and it follows a number of well-worn though unwritten rules. It is, in that sense, a system.
It used to be that System D was small -- a handful of market women selling a handful of shriveled
carrots to earn a handful of pennies. It was the economy of desperation. But as trade has expanded
and globalized, System D has scaled up too. Today, System D is the economy of aspiration. It is
where the jobs are. In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),
a think tank sponsored by the governments of 30 of the most powerful capitalist countries and
dedicated to promoting free-market institutions, concluded that half the workers of the world -close to 1.8 billion people -- were working in System D: off the books, in jobs that were neither
registered nor regulated, getting paid in cash, and, most often, avoiding income taxes.

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SUBJECTS: DEVELOPMENT, ECONOMICS

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TheShadowSuperpower
Forget China: the $10 trillion global black market is the world's fastest growing economy -- and its
future.
BY ROBERT NEUWIRTH | OCTOBER 28, 2011

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Kids selling lemonade from the sidewalk in front of their houses are part of System D. So are many of
the vendors at stoop sales, flea markets, and swap meets. So are the workers who look for
employment in the parking lots of Home Depot and Lowe's throughout the United States. And it's not
only cash-in-hand labor. As with David Obi's deal to bring generators from China to Nigeria, System
D is multinational, moving all sorts of products -- machinery, mobile phones, computers, and more -around the globe and creating international industries that help billions of people find jobs and
services.
In many countries -- particularly in the developing world -- System D is growing faster than any
other part of the economy, and it is an increasing force in world trade. But even in developed
countries, after the financial crisis of 2008-09, System D was revealed to be an important financial
coping mechanism. A 2009 study by Deutsche Bank, the huge German commercial lender,
suggested that people in the European countries with the largest portions of their economies that
were unlicensed and unregulated -- in other words, citizens of the countries with the most robust
System D -- fared better in the economic meltdown of 2008 than folks living in centrally planned and
tightly regulated nations. Studies of countries throughout Latin America have shown that desperate
people turned to System D to survive during the most recent financial crisis.

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This spontaneous system, ruled by the spirit of organized improvisation, will be crucial for the
development of cities in the 21st century. The 20th-century norm -- the factory worker who nests at
the same firm for his or her entire productive life -- has become an endangered species. In China, the
world's current industrial behemoth, workers in the massive factories have low salaries and little job
security. Even in Japan, where major corporations have long guaranteed lifetime employment to
full-time workers, a consensus is emerging that this system is no longer sustainable in an increasingly

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PASSPORT

mobile and entrepreneurial world.
So what kind of jobs will predominate? Part-time work, a variety of self-employment schemes,
consulting, moonlighting, income patching. By 2020, the OECD projects, two-thirds of the workers
of the world will be employed in System D. There's no multinational, no Daddy Warbucks or Bill
Gates, no government that can rival that level of job creation. Given its size, it makes no sense to talk
of development, growth, sustainability, or globalization without reckoning with System D.
The growth of System D presents a series of challenges to the norms of economics, business, and
governance -- for it has traditionally existed outside the framework of trade agreements, labor laws,
copyright protections, product safety regulations, antipollution legislation, and a host of other
political, social, and environmental policies. Yet there's plenty that's positive, too. In Africa, many
cities -- Lagos, Nigeria, is a good example -- have been propelled into the modern era through System
D, because legal businesses don't find enough profit in bringing cutting- edge products to the third
world. China has, in part, become the world's manufacturing and trading center because it has been
willing to engage System D trade. Paraguay, small, landlocked, and long dominated by larger and
more prosperous neighbors, has engineered a decent balance of trade through judicious smuggling.
The digital divide may be a concern, but System D is spreading technology around the world at
prices even poor people can afford. Squatter communities may be growing, but the informal
economy is bringing commerce and opportunity to these neighborhoods that are off the
governmental grid. It distributes products more equitably and cheaply than any big company can.
And, even as governments around the world are looking to privatize agencies and get out of the
business of providing for people, System D is running public services -- trash pickup, recycling,
transportation, and even utilities.
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Robert Neuwirth is a writer and investigative reporter. This article is excerpted and adapted from his new
book: Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy.
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TheShadowSuperpower
Forget China: the $10 trillion global black market is the world's fastest growing economy -- and its
future.
BY ROBERT NEUWIRTH | OCTOBER 28, 2011

Most Popular on
1. U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads
Government-Made News to Americans

2. Pentagon Finally Breaks Ties With Russia's
3.
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5.
6.

Just how big is System D? Friedrich Schneider, chair of the economics department at Johannes
Kepler University in Linz, Austria, has spent decades calculating the dollar value of what he calls the
shadow economies of the world. He admits his projections are imprecise, in part because, like
privately held businesses everywhere, businesspeople who engage in trade off the books don't want
to open their books (most successful System D merchants are obsessive about profit and loss and
keep detailed accounts of their revenues and expenses in old-fashioned ledger books) to anyone who
will write anything in a book. And there's a definitional problem as well, because the border between
the shadow and the legal economies is blurry. Does buying some of your supplies from an unlicensed
dealer put you in the shadows, even if you report your profit and pay your taxes? How about hiding
just $1 in income from the government, though the rest of your business is on the up-and-up? And
how about selling through System D even if your business is in every other way in compliance with
the law? Finding a firm dividing line is not easy, as Keith Hart, who was among the first academics to
acknowledge the importance of street markets to the economies of the developing world, warned
me in a recent conversation: "It's very difficult to separate the nice African ladies selling oranges on
the street and jiggling their babies on their backs from the Indian gangsters who control the fruit
trade and who they have to pay rent to."

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Schneider suggests, however, that, in making his estimates, he has this covered. He screens out all
money made through "illegal actions that fit the characteristics of classical crimes like burglary,
robbery, drug dealing, etc." This means that the big-time criminals are likely out of his statistics,
though those gangsters who control the fruit market are likely in, as long as they're not involved in
anything more nefarious than running a price-fixing cartel. Also, he says, his statistics do not count
"the informal household economy." This means that if you're putting buckles on belts in your home
for a bit of extra cash from a company owned by your cousin, you're in, but if you're babysitting
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for a bit of extra cash from a company owned by your cousin, you're in, but if you're babysitting
your cousin's kids while she's off putting buckles on belts at her factory, you're out.

PASSPORT
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Schneider presents his numbers as a percentage of the total market value of goods and services made
in each country that same year -- each nation's gross domestic product. His data show that System D
is on the rise. In the developing world, it's been increasing every year since the 1990s, and in many
countries it's growing faster than the officially recognized gross domestic product (GDP). If you
apply his percentages (Schneider's most recent report, published in 2006, uses economic data from
2003) to the World Bank's GDP estimates, it's possible to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation
of the approximate value of the billions of underground transactions around the world. And it comes
to this: The total value of System D as a global phenomenon is close to $10 trillion. Which makes for
another astonishing revelation. If System D were an independent nation, united in a single political
structure -- call it the United Street Sellers Republic (USSR) or, perhaps, Bazaaristan -- it would be
an economic superpower, the second-largest economy in the world (the United States, with a GDP of
$14 trillion, is numero uno). The gap is narrowing, though, and if the United States doesn't snap out
of its current funk, the USSR/Bazaaristan could conceivably catch it sometime this century.
In other words, System D looks a lot like the future of the global economy. All over the world -- from
San Francisco to São Paulo, from New York City to Lagos -- people engaged in street selling and
other forms of unlicensed trade told me that they could never have established their businesses in
the legal economy. "I'm totally off the grid," one unlicensed jewelry designer told me. "It was never
an option to do it any other way. It never even crossed my mind. It was financially absolutely
impossible." The growth of System D opens the market to those who have traditionally been shut
out.
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SUBJECTS: DEVELOPMENT, ECONOMICS

Robert Neuwirth is a writer and investigative reporter. This article is excerpted and adapted from his new
book: Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy.
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TheShadowSuperpower
Forget China: the $10 trillion global black market is the world's fastest growing economy -- and its
future.
BY ROBERT NEUWIRTH | OCTOBER 28, 2011

Most Popular on
1. U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads
Government-Made News to Americans

2. Pentagon Finally Breaks Ties With Russia's
3.
4.
5.
6.

This alternative economic system also offers the opportunity for large numbers of people to find
work. No job-cutting or outsourcing is going on here. Rather, a street market boasts dozens of
entrepreneurs selling similar products and scores of laborers doing essentially the same work. An
economist would likely deride all this duplicated work as inefficient. But the level of competition on
the street keeps huge numbers of people employed. It liberates their entrepreneurial energy. And it
offers them the opportunity to move up in the world.
In São Paulo, Édison Ramos Dattora, a migrant from the rural midlands, has succeeded in the
nation's commercial capital by working as a camelô -- an unlicensed street vendor. He started out
selling candies and chocolates on the trains, and is now in a more lucrative branch of the street trade
-- retailing pirate DVDs of first-run movies to commuters around downtown. His underground trade
-- he has to watch out for the cops wherever he goes -- has given his family a standard of living he
never dreamed possible: a bank account, a credit card, an apartment in the center of town, and
enough money to take a trip to Europe.

7.
8.

Shady Arms Dealer
Everyone Hates U.S. Bases in Asia -- Until
Disaster Strikes
Meet the Newest Anti-Fracking Activist: Pope
Francis
White House Blasts New Iran Sanctions as
"March to War"
Why Is China Giving the Philippines the Cold
Shoulder?
The Entrepreneurs of Cynical Sectarianism
The Rise of Big Chocolate

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Even in the most difficult and degraded situations, System D merchants are seeking to better their
lives. For instance, the garbage dump would be the last place you would expect to be a locus of hope
and entrepreneurship. But Lagos scavenger Andrew Saboru has pulled himself out of the trash heap
and established himself as a dealer in recycled materials. On his own, with no help from the
government or any NGOs or any bank (Andrew has a bank account, but his bank will never loan him
money -- because his enterprise is unlicensed and unregistered and depends on the unpredictable
labor of culling recyclable material from the megacity's massive garbage pile), he has climbed the
career ladder. "Lagos is a city for hustling," he told me. "If you have an idea and you are serious and
willing to work, you can make money here. I believe the future is bright." It took Andrew 16 years to

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make his move, but he succeeded, and he's proud of the business he has created.
We should be too. As Joanne Saltzberg, who heads Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore -- a
business development group -- told me, we need to change our attitude and to salute the
achievements of those who are engaged in this alternate economy. "We only revere success," she
said. "I don't think we honor the struggle. People who have no access to business development
resources. People who have to work two and three jobs just to survive. When you are struggling in
this economy and still you commit yourself to having a better life, that's really something to honor."
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Can YOU Decipher
This Horrible
Chinese Communist
Party
Gobbledygook?

Did the New York
Times Just Get
Blocked in China -Again?

By DAVID WERTIME
BY RACHEL LU AND
DAVID WERTIME

4

1,119 people like this. Sign Up to see what your friends like.

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See All Photo

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Essays
SUBJECTS: DEVELOPMENT, ECONOMICS

Robert Neuwirth is a writer and investigative reporter. This article is excerpted and adapted from his new
book: Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy.
On the Road to India's
Camel Bazaar

More From FP

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Conquered the World
Feature
The $80 Billion Race to
Cash in on China's
Gambling Addiction
Think Again
American Nuclear
Disarmament
See Entire Issue
Preview Digital Edition

Boehner: No Talks on Immigration
The Pentagon Is
Finally Breaking
Ties With Shady
Russian Arms
Dealers

The 11th
Commandment:
Thou Shalt Not
Frack

Ain't No Party
Like a Chinese
Protest Party.
Seriously.

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for the Casual
Poverty Tourist

Ted Cruz on Obamacare: Time for
Congress to Step In
Hoyer, Top Democrats Mull Obamacare
Mutiny
Christopher Ruddy: Obama Going Route
of Nixon

(40)

HIDE
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LOGIN OR
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REPORT
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Quinnipiac Poll: Most Say Obama Not
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What's This?

JAMESLIP
9:04 PM ET
October 28, 2011

Chinese

More stories from

The day China decides to take over Taiwan, that is when it will be a
superpower. Should you start to learn Chinese already? Good
question. China is still quite moderate, and much less expansive than
they could be. Let's hope it will remain like that for now, let's stick with
English.
James

KEYBASHER
9:03 AM ET
October 31, 2011

Don't bet on China just yet.
When a one-party state hosts an Olympics, ten years later
that state circles the drain if it isn't already down it. To wit:

Why French Fries Really Are Freedom
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