Informal institutions and the regulation of smuggling in North Africa

Dec 5, 2018

From: LSE Research Online

Max Gallien

Abstract: Contemporary writing on North African borderlands invokes the idea of a general, unregulated porosity through which small-scale informal traders of food or textiles move alongside drug smugglers and terrorists. This paper challenges that conception, demonstrating that the vast majority of smuggling activity is in fact highly regulated through a dense network of informal institutions that determine the costs, quantity and types of goods that can pass through certain nodes, typically segmenting licit from illicit goods. While informal, the institutions regulating this trade are largely impersonal and contain third party enforcement, hence providing a direct empirical challenge to common characterisations of informal institutions in political science. The paper argues that revisiting the characteristics associated with informal institutions, and understanding them as contingent on their political environment, can provide a new starting point for studying institutions, the politics of informality, state capacity, and the regulation of illegal economies.


This paper has presented questions to provide the starting point for analyses into the political environment that conditions how and why states engage in informal regulation, asking how different actors can benefit from regulatory informality, what kind of political relationships can emerge from it, and how it remains in equilibrium. There are significant opportunities for further research in every one of these questions – giving a complete account of them even for the local context discussed in this paper goes far beyond its scope. This is not limited to the study of illegal economies, but applies to the wider set of scholarship in political science that builds on the assumptions of mainstream institutional theory such as scholarship on political settlements, non-state governance, or business-state relationships.

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