The purpose of this paper is to examine the persistence and significance of informal economic activity in both the developed and developing world. Drawing on empirical work carried out in Belfast, the paper suggests that many similarities exist between the informal economic activities of people on low incomes in Belfast and the poor in developing countries. The paper illustrates these connections through an examination of three aspects of the informal economy: reciprocity between households, informal self-employment and informal paid employment. By examining the variety of ways in which people at the lower end of the economic scale attempt to secure their economic livelihoods in the absence of formal employment opportunities, the paper demonstrates the global nature of the informal economy. Copyright © 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.