Turning sidewalks into job creation platforms is a shortsighted approach that is turning Addis Abeba into a shanty town.

Whose idea is it to blanket the city streets with filth-ridden, threadbare and shabby plastic tarps; rusted corrugated metals; and twisted Eucalyptus lumber that houses street vendors, food stalls, coffee ladies and shoeshine boys across every nook and cranny of this capital?

Nowhere, from the chic boulevards of Bole District to the rundown neighbourhoods of Kechene, are we spared this nuisance. A woman recently set up a coffee stand near the National Theatre operating from what looks like a metal cabinet that stands between two bus shelters. She has spread her wares out on the pedestrian walkway, storing what looks like bread and other food items arrayed behind her in the cabinet.

She left hardly a foot in front of her for passersby to walk, forcing most to go into the street to avoid running into her stall. Several stools are laid around the coffee table where one or two customers are sipping coffee from little cups. Next to her is an urn filled with glowing charcoal and burning frankincense, and a charcoal burner where a clay coffee pot is simmering, the hallmark of her trade. She washes her wares right there and dumps the used water along the gutter where a nascent pool of putrefied liquid has begun to fester.

“Do you pay rent to set up shop here?” inquires a man to a shoeshine boy, who is bent down brushing his shoes nearby.

“Yes, there is some guy who comes by every week to collect from us.”

“Is he from the city?”

The boy looks up and smiles, either moved by the naiveté of the question or the incredulity of the premise that a mere shoeshine boy can be knowledgeable of the workings of the authorities. A man waiting his turn to have his shoes shined adds a little light to the mystery.

“It is a scheme that municipal officials have devised to allow unemployed people to open up stalls to create jobs.”

What once may have looked like a good idea, implemented with that whimsical approach our municipalities operate in, has since turned the capital into a veritable slum. Never mind that reports and studies by the World Bank, FAO, the International Labour Union (ILU) and other scholarly bodies have tried to shed light and defend the benefits of street vending in developing countries like ours.

The essence of their argument is that street vending is like a “sponge that absorbs large numbers of surplus labour, especially women. To be sure, when urban management policies allow vendors to conduct their trade, positive impacts result on several fronts: on poverty, employment, entrepreneurship, social mobility, and peace and order,” as an ILU report stated in a 2008 policy paper.

But these scholarly authors and policy hawks do not live with us in this overburdened metropolis. Nor do they have their noses in the trough to smell the stench that we smell. Even if they reside in the city, they live behind walled compounds, in pristine hotel rooms, flower-perfumed lobbies and zoom by in chauffeur-driven vehicles too quickly to smell the stink or notice the puddles of putrefaction that we gingerly avoid as we go about our business. Even our own elite are guilty of this neglect.

Generations of our citizens have been corralled into thinking, mostly egged on by government policy and contrivance, into the dead-end venture of hawking cheap trinkets and setting up cut-rate food stalls that generate miserly incomes. Aside from tending to the day to day needs of the vendors, such endeavours could hardly contribute anything to lift their own livelihoods any higher.

While looking for solutions to the problem of unemployment, the city has overlooked the quality of life of the citizens. In the process, the municipal authorities have failed to "balance the need to support livelihoods with the need to manage public space,” as Sally Roever et al. put it succinctly in a 2016 article on the subject of street vendors and cities.

The urban public space is the only physical space where right of ways are reserved for citizens, where the public can move around freely, intermingle, conduct its daily activities and carry on with its public social interactions. The public space is not an asset of the poor, where the underprivileged earn their livelihoods by edging other citizens out of the way.

Our streets are not intended for trading, haphazardly setting up shops, plying the avenues with cheap wares, performing personal grooming or discarding waste. Whether operating out of dilapidated city-issued stalls, makeshift contraptions built with tattered plastic tarps or operating just out in the open, these vendors have abrogated the streets and walkways as their own private domain, forcing the public to fend for its self.

The urban environment, which should contribute to the quality of life of the citizens, has been so severely compromised by the vendors, and the aesthetic quality of the city so degraded by them that Addis Abeba resembles a shanty town rather than a modern urban settlement.

The municipal authorities from time to time try to control the mushrooming number of street vendors. But their efforts range from the silly to the tepid. Occasionally, the police walk a street portion wielding their batons and sending streams of vendors temporarily into back alleyways and the middle of the streets, only to have them return to their perch once the officers move past.

All the official attempts, including issuing directives, using brute force, implementing relocations or creating various satellite markets have failed to control street vendors. Perhaps, the beginning of the solution is in evicting municipal tenants that pay the city a modicum of fees to install permanent stalls that have compromised the aesthetic beauty of our urban landscape.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 13,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1002]

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