The Myth of Formality in the Global North: Informality‐as‐Innovation in Dutch Governance


Why has urban informality in the global North received so little attention? We suggest that this neglect can be explained in part by the tendency of scholarship to reproduce the myth of Northern formality: the widely held belief that informality occurs only in corrupt and clientelist ‘developing countries’. This myth has allowed activities and connections that would generally be framed as clientelist or corrupt in the global South to be rebranded as policy innovation in Western Europe and North America. In this brief paper, we challenge the myth of Northern formality by focusing on two empirical cases of informality in Dutch governance that demonstrate how the state frames the toleration and deliberate use of informality as policy innovations. Specifically, we focus on strategic, uncodified and non‐transparent deviation from legal procedure in order to achieve compliance and/or effectiveness. Relying on ethnographic methods and secondary sources, we discuss firstly the governance of Amsterdam’s red light district and secondly participatory infrastructure projects in the surrounding province of North Holland. The first case highlights the strategic non‐enforcement or non‐application of laws, while the second case points to the use of personalized relationships and non‐transparency in participatory governance.