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 power is often scarce. David’s deal, struck four years ago, was 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.
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 particularly effective and motivated people. They call themdébrouillards. To say a man is a débrouillard is to tell people how resourceful and ingenious he is. The former French colonies have sculpted this word to their own social and economic reality. They say that inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes, are part of “l’economie de la débrouillardise.” Or, sweetened for street use, “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.
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.
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 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.