UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


INFORM - Conference Declaration 2017

The INFORM project was created in response to a call from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme for research that would lead to policies to improve the processes of European integration of the states of Southeast Europe. The researchers identified a major source of difficulty in the lack of fit between formal legal resolutions, many of which are demanded as a part of the process of European integration, and actual practices on the ground. This lack of fit derives from formal resolutions that do not match the capacity of state administrations, the character of political will, cultural and value orientations among the publics of states, and informal procedures that have been developed over time to compensate for shortcomings in regulatory systems.

The term informality is widely used and sometimes understood too narrowly. It is often used in a sweeping way as a synonym for corruption or for practices designed to evade regulation or fees. While informality does include practices of this type, the category is broader: it includes creative and community-based ways in which people confront problems, some of which arise from institutional inconsistency or deficient legal frameworks. The INFORM project aims not only to identify those informal practices that create problems for legal and regulatory systems, but also informal practices that may offer sources of solutions. A motivating insight of the project’s work is that difficulty arises not from informality itself, but from gaps between the world as it is described by formal law and the world as it is lived in informal practice.

Informality is by no means unique to the region of Southeast Europe. It is a global phenomenon. Southeast Europe offers an important site for study of informality due to the presence of new states faced by multiple pressures for major reform, the legacy of competing global ideologies which gives legal reform a specific emotional valence, both violence and economic marginality which have severely limited the capacity of states, and the role of “integration” as often both a goal of state policy and an object of contention.

One of the main purposes of the INFORM research programme is to use empirical knowledge to offer proposals on policy development to the European Union and to the acceding states of Southeast Europe. Our findings so far suggest the following overall orientation.

Strategic and policy directions

1. Seek a close relation between policy and social conditions. The current generation is not the first to witness a transformation of political and legal structures, or to be confronted with the claim that the changes that are being implemented will be revolutionary. In Southeast Europe, every generation in the last century has faced this situation. The credibility of claims to be making revolutionary change is undermined when the changes are led from above using ideas from outside, and when the changes are superficially or incompletely implemented. Successful policy reform grows out of finding a match between legal regulation and actual conditions on the ground.

2. Keep ambitions in proportion to capacity. A major source of gaps between formal and informal practice derives from governments enacting laws that they are unable or unwilling to implement. Some of these laws are adopted in response to conditionality or demands, and some of them unnecessarily exceed demands and conditions, that in turn cannot be enforced. Such laws may undermine the credibility of states, and simultaneously create space for discrimination and corruption, and encourage new informal practices designed to circumvent failures of the formal system. In many cases it may be better for legislatures not to act than to take action that will not be implemented.

3. Investigate where formality is desired. There is a widespread perception that corrupt manifestations of informality are manifestations of a regional tradition. This is a stereotype that should be dismissed. Our research indicates that most of the people who invest in informal practices and networking do so at a high cost, and would overwhelmingly prefer to be able to rely on a predictable and consistent system of formal regulation. Political and electoral practices that circumvent formal institutional sites of decision-making, or distort processes of expression of popular sentiment, are similarly unpopular. Policy makers from EU and WB region should also not look at informal institutions, informal networking and informal practices as a priori negative phenomenon having cultural, ethnic, religious, and traditional roots, or reflecting mentality of the Western Balkans region.

4. Maintain and nurture what works. Many informal practices arise in order to meet needs, and often meet them successfully. This is particularly the case with practices address problems arising from gender and interethnic inequality. While designing regulations, it is important to recognise the practices that succeed in meeting public needs, and to allow space for such informal practices.

5. Be ready to learn from informal institutions and adjust formal rules to informal values, norms, and practices. Informal institutions regulating networking of entrepreneurs in the Southeast Europe region, for example, operationally deal much better with the ethnic and religious heterogeneities in these societies than formal institutions. Well-established informal practices of social, ethnic, and religious inclusion should be incorporated into formal institutional settings wherever possible.

6. Be aware that restrictive policies toward informality might not work. Restrictive policies toward the informal economy in particular, might not work. Instead, stimulating and indirect measures reduce the informal economy and may facilitate the correspondence of informal aims and practices with formal ones.

This conference declaration was approved at the joint conference of researchers and policy makers in Bled, Slovenia on 17 November 2017.

Conscious of the contribution that research can offer to policy, we call for continuing close cooperation between the research and policy communities.