WIEGO: Liberia’s Street Vendors Pioneer New Approach with City Officials

WIEGO: Liberia’s Street Vendors Pioneer New Approach with City Officials

Street vendors from Bangkok to Bogota face constant, daily harassment as they go about selling their goods to earn a living. 
 
For years, the situation in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia was no different. Until, that is, street vendors in the city organized. They established the Federation of Petty Traders and Informal Workers Union of Liberia (FEPTIWUL)*; got savvy with their negotiation skills; gained the respect of officials; and, in 2018, worked with the municipality to devise a pioneering approach that includes street trade as part of the city’s future.
 
But to make it happen, they had to pass a test – one that came straight from the top.

Member of FEPTIWUL at the Red Light Market Branch. Photo: Sarah Orleans Reed

The mayor’s challenge

When Monrovia’s new mayor, Jefferson Tamba Koijee, stepped into office last year, street vendors saw an opportunity. 

FEPTIWUL’s leadership was no stranger to working with the Monrovia Municipal Corporation (MCC). They signed their first memorandum of understanding (MOU) under former-mayor Clara Doe Mvogo, but the agreement collapsed in 2015, leaving vendors on their own yet again. They had been waiting for the right occasion to reignite discussions.

It was a major turning point in a decade-long struggle — and showed the power of strong informal worker organizations in making positive change happen in urban areas.

That moment came last year. Just weeks into his new administration, FEPTIWUL’s leaders approached Mayor Koijee to broker a deal: they wanted to work with him to regularize street trading.

They had been preparing non-stop for this moment since their formation 10 years earlier —taking part in negotiation trainings, building on-the-ground relationships with many different municipal offices, expanding their member base and strengthening neighbourhood-level vendor branches. 

The new mayor, knowing he had an ever-growing public space challenge in front of him, was interested in FEPTIWUL’s offer. Sorting it all out with a single negotiating counterpart would be easier, but he wanted proof that the organization could legitimately represent and mobilize the city’s vast number of street traders.

Having regular dialogue allows the parties to work out the kinks together.

The mayor called in his chief of staff, Franco Grimes, to “test” FEPTIWUL by calling for a meeting on short notice. In no time, FEPTIWUL arrived with leaders from every block in Central Monrovia.

Both Grimes and Mayor Koijee were impressed. “It demonstrated that you’re working with an organization that touches most or many of our street traders,” explained Grimes. The mayor gave the go ahead to work together.

A new agreement in place

Just nine months later, Monrovia’s street vendors had a big win to celebrate. 

On 27 September 2018, after rounds of detailed negotiation, they signed a landmark MOU with the MCC. It was a major turning point in a decade-long struggle — and showed the power of strong informal worker organizations in making positive change happen in urban areas.

Read more about vendors' negotiations with Monrovia City Government.

A cutting-edge deal: Equality and commitment

The new agreement is superior to FEPTIWUL’s own previous deal with MCC for reasons that, according to StreetNet International, also make it a model for street vendor management frameworks worldwide.  

First is the principle of equality between the two parties. Both MCC and FEPTIWUL face penalties if they do not uphold their end of the deal, giving the other party leverage in the case of a breach.

Vendor leaders gradually gained the confidence to express what they, as citizens and workers, could rightfully demand from their government.

Secondly, the MOU commits the parties to meeting on a monthly basis. This is important because the new MOU is complex, with six annexes detailing issues like street zoning, sanitation, and spatial layout of individual vendors. Having regular dialogue allows the parties to work out the kinks together, negotiating and modifying their agreement before small issues become big problems. 

Both of these points are crucial to the success of the solution. Arrangements between government and vendors often fail at the implementation stage, where unforeseen complications or challenges inevitably arise. This framework allows for equal, ongoing dialogue to ensure a positive outcome for both sides.

Read about WIEGO's work with street vendors.

Vendors in Central Monrovia holding a block-level meeting. Photo: Sarah Orleans Reed

FEPTIWUL’s three key strategies for success

What was FEPTIWUL’s formula for building such an effective movement and building trust with government over less than a decade? It’s all much easier said than done, but below are a few of their strategies.  

FEPTIWUL invested in their leaders’ negotiation skills.

FEPTIWUL leaders realized at an early stage that they had to gain negotiating skills. StreetNet International’s experienced trainers provided intense training, introducing concepts, techniques, and skills of negotiation: how to identify a negotiating counterpart, approach them, plan for meetings, divide up roles at the negotiating table, and follow-up on documented agreements.

“We understand about the responsibility of authorities for the citizens,” said the coordinator of the Red Light Market Branch.

This education wasn’t limited to the classroom. At one workshop, participants hopped in cars to go meet with their negotiating counterparts, the Liberian National Police and Liberian Revenue Authority, to learn more about how these agencies understood FEPTIWUL — an unconventional but insightful look in the mirror.

Vendor leaders gradually gained the confidence to express what they, as citizens and workers, could rightfully demand from their government. They honed their understanding of chains of command, learning to redirect conflict from the street level upwards and to formulate arguments powerfully and succinctly.

Elected branch leaders are responsible for developing relationships with police and local government on behalf of the traders, sorting out issues like where traders can sell, when they can operate, and how to clean trading areas.

“We understand about the responsibility of authorities for the citizens,” said the coordinator of the Red Light Market Branch. “It helped me come face to face with authority and tell them what is right and what is wrong.”

FEPTIWUL organized fiercely at the grassroots level and empowered local branches to do the same.

As demonstrated by Mayor Koijee’s initial “test”, there is a tight feedback loop between FEPTIWUL’s leverage with city government and its local-level organizing and management capacity. When FEPTIWUL struts its capacity to manage trade and to promote regulations without resorting to force, smart politicians take notice. 

“We explain to them that we can help them beautify the city,” explained FEPTIWUL’s National Chairperson, Comfort Doryen.

FEPTIWUL’s Red Light Market Branch — in the country’s largest market — started its own sanitation committee that is responsible for collecting solid waste at the end of each day.

Organizing starts at the local level. Elected branch leaders are responsible for developing relationships with police and local government on behalf of the traders, sorting out issues like where traders can sell, when they can operate, and how to clean trading areas. At the street level, block leaders act as focal points for traders. They take the lead in interacting with police, mediating conflict, and encouraging traders to comply with rules. 

This formula keeps street trade tidy and smooth. In bustling Front Street in Central Monrovia, for example, traders have long respected a yellow line that separates the market from the road. FEPTIWUL’s Duala Market Branch collaborated with Liberian National Police in 2018 to construct a low wall that similarly protects traders from vehicle traffic. To promote compliance with this rule and other standards in the market, Duala Branch leaders launched a member-led task force. FEPTIWUL’s Red Light Market Branch — in the country’s largest market — started its own sanitation committee that is responsible for collecting solid waste at the end of each day.

Keeping street trade tidy and under control is central to FEPTIWUL’s success in gradually legitimizing it.

All of this is hard work — and sometimes means taking on responsibilities the local government should be fulfilling. But keeping street trade tidy and under control is central to FEPTIWUL’s success in gradually legitimizing it.

FEPTIWUL tried and tried, and tried again, to build trust with their government counterparts — and they succeeded. 

FEPTIWUL has worked tirelessly to build the relationships it now enjoys with multiple government agencies. Persistence is the name of their game. 

“There is not just one chance to engage,” said Secretary General of the Red Light Market branch (whose market falls in the jurisdiction of Paynesville, rather than Monrovia). “City Police told us the first time to go away, but we kept engaging until we found common ground.” 

“City Police told us the first time to go away, but we kept engaging until we found common ground.”

A Central Monrovia block leader added, “We have learned to have a ‘Plan B,’ for when things don’t go well the first time, so we can approach the officials again. Now we have a Plan B and a Plan C.”

In its early days, FEPTIWUL relied on key political support from former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. But FEPTIWUL’s early negotiations with the MCC were marked by setbacks and broken promises, which it could not rely on Johnson to resolve. 

As the organization matured, it sought to build its own relations with authorities directly. FEPTIWUL made inroads by holding meetings with the Liberian National Police, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Liberian Revenue Authority, and the Monrovia City Corporation. 

As FEPTIWUL demonstrated its ability to manage traders on the ground, these meetings became more and more constructive. They resulted in a diminishment of police harassment, and eventually the signing of a first MOU in 2014. When relations with the then-Mayor Clara Doe Mvogo soured in 2015, FEPTIWUL nevertheless continued meeting with representatives of relevant MCC departments.

As FEPTIWUL demonstrated its ability to manage traders on the ground, these meetings became more and more constructive. They resulted in a diminishment of police harassment.

Today, FEPTIWUL is seen increasingly as a valuable partner bringing “expertise” to the field. As MCC’s Director of Monitoring and Evaluation described, “We are turning the streets over to [FEPTIWUL]. They have a different perspective from how we look at the streets. They understand the needs in a different way, because they see the street as a business place.”

Block leader on Mechlin Street in Central Monrovia. Photo: Sarah Orleans Reed

Global significance: All eyes will be watching  

WIEGO will be keeping its eye on the Central Monrovia MOU. FEPTIWUL and the MCC both understand the global significance of what they are undertaking: “You could lift and carry this document to any city in Monrovia, in Liberia, in West Africa,” explained the mayor’s chief of staff, Franco Grimes.   

It will not be easy: aspects of the agreement, such as the relocation of certain vendors and the establishment of a new task force in Central Monrovia, will require sensitivity and are likely to rock the boat for vendors and government alike. FEPTIWUL and MCC will certainly need to renegotiate terms in the MOU’s extensive annex as implementation moves forward.

Today, FEPTIWUL is seen increasingly as a valuable partner bringing “expertise” to the field.

But when it comes to vending, the street is the only laboratory we have. And this new, landmark agreement creates the right conditions for experimentation.

* FEPTIWUL was originally called the National Association of Petty Traders Union of Liberia (NAPETUL).
WIEGO's work with StreetNet and FEPTIWUL in Liberia has been funded through a grant from the Cities Alliance, of which WIEGO is a member.
 

Article by Sarah Orleans Reed & Mike Bird 
Photo Credits: Feature photo: Sarah Orleans Reed