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Shaping the Future of Work in a Digital World – Why Should Development Organisations Care?: IDS

On 13th March, IDS together with the Web Foundation and Nesta, hosted the inaugural Digital Development Summit, with the support of DFID and the DFID-ESRC Impact Initiative.This blog post was the first in a series that was published by organisers and participants over several weeks. Here IDS’s Becky Faith and Ben Ramalingam explain why the future of work in a digital age matters for development actors, and what we need to be thinking and doing differently.

In recent months, it has been hard to avoid breathless headlines warning of the impact of technology and digitisation on the world of work. Whilst the tone of these accounts varies from the enthusiastic to the doom-laden, there is agreement among analysts that significant and urgent changes are needed at many levels including;

There are two big reasons why this should matter for development organisations.

First, although every major report highlights is the fact that developing countries are likely to be hit harder by digitisation and automation than the US and Europe, this fact is seldom given much attention. Data from the World Bank analysed by the Oxford Martin School and CitiBank shows that susceptibility to automation is negatively correlated with GDP per capita the poorer the country, the more vulnerable it is.

Research by the Oxford Martin School also shows that some 85 per cent of jobs in Ethiopia and similarly high shares of the workforce in countries such as China and Nigeria are susceptible to automation. 

Second, much of the debate on the future of jobs has focused on the formal sector with little attention paid to the two billion working age adults classified as being outside of the workforce. 82 per cent of South Asians, 66 per cent of Sub Saharan Africans, 65 per cent of people in East and Southeast Asia, and 51 per cent of people in Latin America work in the informal economy, yet relatively little attention is paid to how automation affects their livelihoods.

Despite the urgency of this issue, many governments and global institutions seem ill prepared for the impending impacts. Labour market policies and education and training systems in most countries are simply not prepared for large-scale, rapid changes such as those that might arise from large-scale digitisation. And policy makers are not putting in place anticipatory and adaptive measures at the scale necessary to cope with the impact of digital shocks and stresses.

This gap in thinking and action is especially noticeable among the international development community. With a few exceptions, including research supported by the DFID-ESRC Impact Initiative that will be showcased at the Summit, this issue has as yet received  little attention in research, policy or practice. Whilst most people’s working lives will be fundamentally changed either by direct or indirect impacts of digitisation, there has been a notable absence of debate on what digitisation means in terms of the big picture human development in low and middle income countries, and the potential impacts on peoples’ abilities to work and live in ways that they value.

At IDS, we have spent time thinking through the implications of digital technologies on different groups, and have developed an emerging framework we are calling ‘workforce resilience’. This is shown in preliminary form in Diagram 1, and we will be expanding and building upon it at the Summit.

(Diagram 1: Exploring workforce resilience | Institute for Development Studies)

Suffice to say now, we believe the development community needs to urgently and collectively:

On this last point, it is becoming ever more apparent that we need to think about the appropriate mix of policy interventions that can capitalise on positive possibilities while mitigating the negative impacts. Current ideas range from enhanced social protection measures, such as Universal Basic Income, to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills building for women and children, through to employment schemes and shifts in working patterns. This evolving array of responses requires creativity and foresight, and cross-institutional approaches: neither markets, states nor civil society actors alone can do the job. There are going to be roles for everyone from Silicon Valley technologists, donors, philanthropists, NGOs, trade unions and researchers if we are to fully to engage with these challenges. The need for such collective, ongoing and global responses to is precisely we and our partners are focusing the 2017 Digital Development Summit on the Future of Work in March.

We’re hoping that the Summit can kick-start a process of problem exploration, consensus building and collective effort on how the international community – spanning private sector, governments, labour organisations, civil society and researchers – should be responding to these challenges.  This will be an opportunity to collectively envision and determine ways in which technology might be used to reduce wealth inequalities and accelerate sustainable livelihoods.

Through a series of blogs over the coming weeks and a Briefing Paper that will be disseminated ahead of the Summit, we aim to start an evidence-based, focused and broad debate on this emerging global challenge. We will be drawing on ESRC/DFID funded research to ground discussions on impact of digitisation in people’s lives and capabilities; looking at a broad range of impacts of the spread of technology from the overblown promises of the impact of broadband coverage in East Africa to the up-and-downsides of mobile ownership for young people’s work and life opportunities in South Africa. We will also be highlighting vital research and practical work on digital jobs in Africa, the gig economy in South Africa and technology use by informal workers.

What do you think? Are the threats from digitisation overblown? Or, as as Duncan asked in his blog a couple of months back, is this time really different? What are the different roles for states, markets and society? And how should the development community be responding?

Becky Faith and Ben Ramalingam

This text was syndicated with permission through creative commons licensing from Oxfam’s From Poverty to Power Blog.

Becky Faith @Becky_Faith is a Research Officer and Deputy Leader of the Digital and Technology cluster at IDS. Becky’s professional experience and research interests encompass mobile communication studies, human computer interaction and technology for social change.

Ben Ramalingam  @benramalingam is a researcher, author, advisor and facilitator focusing on global development and humanitarian issues. Currently Leader of the Digital & Technology Cluster at IDS, his research agenda includes economy and inequality; government and service delivery; citizenship, activism and rights; sustainability, resilience and humanitarianism; and digital practices, tools and methods.



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