The poor, inconspicuous actors of globalization

There is more to globalization than successful multinationals and the wealth of an affluent minority. Other actors are involved, but they remain inconspicuous, mostly invisible, in often unknown or unexpected spaces. 

Globalization does produce inequalities, but the way it affects the poor often tends to be explained rather inadequately.  It is either analysed as inevitable or as the consequence of the obscure force of the market which will eventually gradually turn the poor into a global middle class while others claim that the poor are definitely left behind. On closer analysis, these populations characterised as « poor », indeed suffer globalisation. But our approach aims at complementing this basic observation by trying to understand how the poor also participate, support and call for this globalization.

Who are these poor? If extreme poverty (less than 1,9 US dollar per day and per person in 2015) has slightly declined globally, it is still significant (10% of the world population). With a slightly higher income (2 to 10 US dollars per day), the so-called « middle » class is very heterogeneous and longing to devote more money to education, health and consumer goods. Thus, these poor populations, being so numerous, form a huge mass of consumers. Although their purchasing capacities greatly differ, they are increasingly being targeted as the new perspectives for broadening the market. Selling requires identifying, even creating the 4-billion-consumer « market of the poor ».

If globalization concerns social classes, it also concerns spaces. It is reconfiguring and expanding spatially so far as to reach marginal spaces peopled with low-income inhabitants who suffer globalization, but also boost and impact it.  It shakes up city boundaries, particularly those of the « global city » and of some major Westernized metropolis whose central position in the global economy excludes a multitude of other cities.


  • Choplin A., Pliez O., 2018La mondialisation des pauvres.Loin de Wall Street et de Davos, Paris : La République des Idées/Seuil.

Inconspicuous globalization in the Mediterranean Sea

Ever since Ancient Greece, the Mediterranean Sea has always been a globalized space based on the economy of colonial trading posts; today, a multiplicity of trading networks and hubs are being redesigned and interact with other horizons.

It is now common to meet Algerian traders in China. And yet, it should be noted that, in the 1980s, their elders nicknamed « porteurs de cabas (tote holders) », already used to trade back and forth between the major ports of Southern Europe (Marseille, Genova, Barcelona…) and the North African cities opposite. On the Mediterranean northern coast, first a regional, then a European supply chain developed to meet the Southern growing demand for consumption goods.

In the 1990s, the growing development of container transport drove in new stakeholders operating in new places. In France, the Marseille trading port lost its lead position to the benefit of Istanbul which became the main source of supply in the Mediterranean region. In Egypt, supply chains via Libya and Dubai go as far up as Eastern Asia.

Istanbul changed both scales and size. Far from Belsunce, the Marseille district and its legacy from the colonial past, North Africans are now trading with ex-USSR and Middle-East nationals. In the Persian Gulf region, in Dubai or in Jeddah, Istanbul « small worlds » meet Asians, particularly Iranians and Indians, as well as Africans. Over there, the close relationship between Islam and trade is obvious and opens up new territorial horizons, hardly noticeable in the Western Mediterranean region. These trends have been reinforced by the geopolitical upheavals caused by the dismantling of USSR and the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks which strongly impacted Arab traders who had the increasing feeling of no longer being welcome in the United States and in Europe.  

This particular context actually fostered the growth of the Chinese town of Yiwu. Located in the coastal province of Zhejiang, 2 hours away South of Shanghai by train, it was founded along the « Wenzhou model », that is to say, the Chinese official economic reference in the 1990s. Since 1991, it has become the most important wholesale market in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and since 2002, one year after China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), the world biggest wholesale market for « small commodities ».

Over the last decade, many observers have been celebrating the revival of the Silk Roads, an attractive and suggestive hypothesis, magnified by the OBOR (One belt, One Road) megaproject, launched by the Chinese president Xi Jinping in autumn 2013. His goal is to establish maritime and rail routes connecting China, Asia, Africa and Europe. For this next phase, both States and international institutions are designing economic strategies that could be consistent with the economic and cultural capital constructed by two generations of entrepreneur migrants. Unfortunately, these initiatives from above appear to be hindering rather than encouraging what has already been built and which is inconspicuously operating at the margins of the action initiated by the States and major international industrial groups.

The African forms of globalization 

Western Africa has often been said to be « late » in joining the global world. The history of Africa, from slavery to colonization, is unfortunately poorly known. The region is now a sales market for goods massively consumed by millions of poor. The high level of trade and changes are particularly noticeable along the main highway (500 kms) connecting Accra (Ghana) to Lagos (Nigeria) where over 25 million inhabitants live, move, consume and build. In the 50 years to come, this urban route will be the most populated conurbation in Africa.

In this region of the world, cement is the marker of urban development. Urbanizing cement-like grey towns and villages follow one another. Cement is everywhere both concretely and economically. Very much like at the Stock Exchange for major corporations, the changing price of cement is written daily on the shop windows of countless retailers. This price attests to the good health of the economy. Last of all, cement has a symbolical value, it is about rising socially, success being measured in the number of tons of cement you have poured.

Foreseeing these new boundaries of capitalism and cement, major corporations have moved into the West African market. LafargeHolcim and Heidelberg advocate for cement as an industry likely to provide jobs, low-cost housing and to alleviate poverty. The World Bank supports this local production as a lever for development. Cement factories rarely cause any particular outcry, although it is known that the cement industry very seriously impacts climate change (7% of world emissions).

And yet, in the competition for casting Africa in concrete, the major European corporations greatly suffer from the competition of Aliko Dangote, number one fortune in Africa, 100th worldwide. The latter has successfully turned Nigeria in a cement surplus country, hence an exporter. His cement lorries travel from Nigeria to Ghana across Benin and Togo. From Tema, the port in Accra (Ghana), cement is re-exported to Burkina Faso and Mali, at a higher price. Aliko Dangote takes advantage of the Nigerian economic crisis to spread out through the subregion. He plays upon price differentials and benefits from customs agreements signed within the Economic Community of West African States – ECOWAS – and above all from the political support of the Nigerian State.

It must be noted that in these countries where most urban dwellers cannot access bank loans, purchasing material is a way to hoard money. You can often see a notice in the middle of a piece of land bearing the owner’s name with cement bags or bricks on the ground forecasting the construction site to come. Once the piece of land has been purchased, the construction site may take several years, depending on the owner’s more or less regular income.  The point is not only to own a piece of land, but to demonstrate through concrete and bricks that you are respectable. Purchasing cement and building in concrete may put an end to insecure housing, hence to the town precariousness. Building « bricks and mortars » means existing, being modern and rightful. In that sense, cement would embody the right to live in town and to be entitled to stay…A foundation stone for a right to the city…

Interstitial globalization, neither from above nor below

Cement, jeans, pagnes, second-hand clothes… here are the many commodities travelling along the roads, together with traders and buyers. Objects and people connect places scattered all over the planet. All these places are now globalized and form spatial networks questioning the traditional scaling of the local and the global as well as the regional or state intermediate levels. These places support a form of globalization constructed in the interstices of the most visible world economy.

Thus, if some divides tend to disappear, others emerge elsewhere and underscore significant anchoring points and spatial disparities. Maps keep shifting. Besides, the Internet has transformed lifestyles, behaviours and consuming habits and trade has become digital, including wholesale purchases, as shown by the growth of the platform Alibaba.com which connects wholesalers and buyers worldwide.

But this globalization cannot be limited to a number of success stories. Individual or collective failures, the reversibility of routes resulting from the many obstacles actors have to contend with, are all part of the daily routine. But economic crises are fertile ground for new inventions, bifurcations, successful gambles. Because globalization affect the poor in the most unexpected remote places, being poor today also means riding straight into dynamic, inventive, tangible globalization by suffering it but also by dreaming, travelling, « Facebooking » or « whatsApping », and finally consuming.

Crédits images en CC : Pixabay mohamed_hassan, Svg Silh, Mondes Sociaux, Flickr Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker


Armelle Choplin et Olivier Pliez

Armelle Choplin, Université Paris-Est, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (armelle.choplin@ird.fr) et Olivier Pliez, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, LISST-CIEU (olivier.pliez@univ-tlse2.fr)

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