This article contributes to the debate on the formalization of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) – low-tech, labour-intensive mineral extraction and processing – in developing countries. A unique sector populated by an eclectic group of individuals, ASM has expanded rapidly in all corners of the world in recent years. Most of its activities, however, are informal, scattered across lands which are not officially titled. But growing recognition of the sector's economic importance, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, has forced donors, and to some extent, policymakers, to ‘rethink’ development strategies for ASM. As part of broader moves to improve the regulation of, and occasionally intensify the delivery of assistance to, the sector, many are now searching frantically for fresh ideas on how to bring operations into the legal domain, where, it is believed, they can be regulated, monitored and supported more effectively. A challenging exercise, this entails first determining, with some degree of precision, why people choose to operate informally in this sector. Drawing on analysis from the literature and findings from research conducted in Ghana and Niger, it is argued that the legalist school (on informality) in part explains how governments across sub-Saharan Africa are ‘creating’ bureaucracies which are stifling the formalization of ASM activities in the region. A more nuanced development strategy grounded in local realities is needed if formalization is to have a transformative effect on the livelihoods of those engaged in ASM in the region and elsewhere in the developing world.