MRUniversity. "What do we know about how extremely poor families earn their money? This video focuses on families earning $2 a day or less."
The video notes that most poor people earn their money with undercapitalized small enterprises. To get a cycle of prosperity going, capital investment is needed. Very small capital improvements can add significant productivity. This leads to greater specialization by labor, ultimately increasing productivity even more and enabling labor to get higher wages. A cycle begins.
However, this also inevitably leads to creative destruction. Should one of these businesses begin to realize great increases in productivity, it will begin to knock other less productive enterprises out to the market. But with rising productivity and living standards comes more demand for other types of goods and services (and thus workers.) Productivity cycles higher, which causes more creative destruction, and so on. It is chaotic and can be disorienting. Some people end up with hardships for a time. Some will experience reversals from which they may not recover. But no economy has risen to broad prosperity without this dynamic.
For prosperity to take hold, there must an abundance of small-to-medium enterprises (SME). If you plot an economy’s firms by employment size, in prosperous countries you will find some very small firms, same very large firms, with a huge bulge of SMEs in the middle. Developing nations have a huge number of very small firms (as noted in the video), some very large firms, and almost nothing in the middle.
A big challenge in developing nations is that so much of the economy (often between 70-90%) operates outside of the official economy. People in the unofficial economy have no access to credit and always risk losing capital investments because they can't demonstrate official claim to their real estate and equipment. This discourages them from capitalizing in the first place.
This is usually not accidental. The official economy is usually dominated by an interconnected elite, with its members cycling in and out of business, government, and military institutions. They operate the locally-owned large enterprises and they use government to block the emergence of any competitors. They use government to take land held informally by the by the poor and to suppress worker rights. The USA was an active participant in supporting this behavior in Latin America throughout the Twentieth Century, to the point of sending troops in many cases. It was all done on the pretense of protecting "capitalism" and "markets" when what was being practiced was anything but capitalism and markets. Capitalism and markets are grounded in well-defined and well-protected property rights and the various players being able to make choices free from coercion.
The ideological right trots out “free markets” as the solution to poverty but too often without attention (and I think intentionally so at times) to the challenge informal economies bring to opening up trade with an emerging nation. That is why some multi-country free trade agreements can be challenging. There need not be perfection in dealing with unofficial economies in emerging nations but trade agreements should be contingent upon continuous improvement in improving property rights and breaking the stranglehold of elites. Some on the right are too quick to jump on a deal just because it has “free trade” in the name.
But the ideological left goes off in another unhelpful direction. Rightly concerned about the injustices that have been visited on the poor in emerging nations through these alleged “free market” episodes, they frame things in terms of the poor keeping their small family farm and small enterprise, and being sustained to stay in those economic modes. They correctly see the need for just systems that help the poor garner and protect property rights but then they actively work against the emergence of SMEs, seemingly grounded in romantic notions of bucolic bliss on a family farm and labor intensive artisan work, often connected with a desire to protect “local culture.” This framing is especially strong in my Presbyterian Church, USA, tribe.
If we are truly going to bring justice and prosperity to the poor, SMEs are critical and the ideological right and left, as they exist today, aren’t going to get us there.