Economies Unseen, the ninth annual conference of the Stanford Association for International Development (SAID), probed the informal economy – a network of informal and illicit transactions collectively worth $10 trillion a year – in an all-day event on Saturday.
Between 150 and 200 students attended the three panels, a development-focused career fair and a keynote speech by Robert Neuwirth, a journalist and author who has written extensively on urban poverty. Other speakers included Karl Eikenberry M.A. ’94, former ambassador to Afghanistan, and Steve Daniels, a member of IBM’s design leadership team and the founder of Makeshift Magazine.
Sarah Johnson ’16, the conference chair, said that her executive team chose the informal economy because it poses a multifaceted and challenging problem.
“The informal economy is massive. It’s everywhere. It’s hard to define,” she said. “It breaks down into two categories: benign informal trade, which is not harmful to anyone, and…the more nefarious side, like human trafficking and weapons trading. Policy options do need to differ depending where a particular type of trade falls on that spectrum.”
Compared to previous conferences, Johnson added a small workshop component, dubbed “interactive focus groups,” framing them as an alternative to those seeking a different conference experience.
“If you didn’t want to sit in on the panels, there was something you could do in lieu of leaving the conference,” said Fiona Noonan ’17, director of the interactive focus groups. “If you wanted a more interactive experience, it might be more useful than just listening to a panel of experts.”
These groups took the form of roundtable sessions hosted by Benetech, a data and technology-driven nonprofit, and the Pacific Links Foundation, an organization empowering women for social change.
The longest, most intensive workshop was held in conjunction with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) and mobile research nonprofit Mobile Metrix, which collects data on underserved populations in Brazil. In a daylong intensive, participants worked with Mobile Metrix’s founder on the organization’s strategy and communications.
Organizers emphasized that while the groups were far from perfect in their first year, they offered a refreshing alternative to conventional conference programming.
“Even though it would have been cool to have a few more people in the smaller setting, it really fostered a good environment for people to feel they could ask questions and get questions answered,” Noonan said. “It was a way to do some problem solving instead of just learning about what was happening.”
For the second consecutive year, the conference included an afternoon career fair where potential employers like Kiva and the Foundation for Sustainable Development tabled and presented. According to Magali Duque ’15, 11 companies attended, a decline from last year’s total of 14.
“Given the space that we had,  was actually a much better number,” she asserted, noting that all the organizations presenting this year had internship or fellowship opportunities open to students.
Johnson, whose goals for the conference included more active event programming, said that she was encouraged by the feedback she received on the focus groups and the workshop.
“The main room was definitely focused on the panels and that is still a very important component of the conference,” she said. “That being said, the future of the conference lies in incorporating more interactive events.”
Contact Edward Ngai at edngai ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.