Informal Work and Wellbeing in Urban South Asia: Who Succeeds, Who Fails and Under What Conditions?


Understanding and managing urbanisation in developing countries is one of the major global policy challenges: rapidly growing towns and cities are increasingly recognised as powerhouses of economic development, employment generation and as having the potential to be great drivers of improvements in human wellbeing. At the same time they can also be the sites of extreme impoverishment, substandard housing, dominated by informal employment, insecure and hazardous working conditions, vulnerability, environmental degradation and unrest.

While there is strong evidence suggesting that economic, socio-political and governance conditions relating to informal living and work significantly impact on development outcomes, relatively little is known about the ways that informal workers actually make their urban lives, the priorities they have, the trade-offs they have to make in their efforts to achieve wellbeing, and the barriers they face in trying to escape poverty. The ways in which informal settlements divergently produce wellbeing outcomes is also likely to depend on a range of institutional conditions, relating to labour markets and to socio-economic and physical-spatial features of these settlements. This study accordingly addressed the following three research questions:

  • What patterns and gradations of wellbeing outcomes (success and failure) do we observe for informal workers in informal settlements in different kinds of urbanising towns and cities in Bangladesh and India?
  • What kinds of institutional conditions of informal settlements explain the patterns of wellbeing failure and success outcomes that we observe and support informal workers to escape poverty or entrap them in it?
  • What do these insights into wellbeing outcomes and processes tell us about which methods and instruments should be employed in anti-poverty policy for informal workers in urbanising contexts?

It concluded that anti-poverty policy, particularly in a context of weak urban governance, should be sensitive to the multidimensional nature of wellbeing, comprising material as well as relational and subjective aspects. The tools and methods presented in this study offer an approach that is sensitive to local indicators of wellbeing, while situating this in a globally applicable wellbeing framework. They allow anti-poverty policy to be responsive to the highly gendered nature of informal work and its wellbeing outcomes. More so, they enable anti-poverty policy to recognise that informal work is rarely only about income, as other aspects such as regularity (e.g. in contract-based employment) and autonomy (for self-employed informal workers) and social protection may be traded off against one another.

Policy interventions can have positive as well as negative effects on these dimensions, sometimes simultaneously in opposite directions (for instance, where itinerant traders are located to urban market stalls). The wellbeing needs and priorities of urban informal workers can be highly context-specific, and it is thus imperative that policymakers recognise this and make anti-poverty policy sufficiently nimble and agile to respond to local needs.


Gupte, J.; Te Lintelo, D. Informal Work and Wellbeing in Urban South Asia: Who Succeeds, Who Fails and Under What Conditions? Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK (2015) 216 pp.

Informal Work and Wellbeing in Urban South Asia: Who Succeeds, Who Fails and Under What Conditions?

Published 1 January 2015