Shaping the future of work in a digital world – why should development organisations care?

February 17, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Becky FaithOn 13th March, IDS together with the Web Foundation and Nesta, are hosting the inaugural Digital Development Ben 1Summit, with the support of DFID and the DFID-ESRC Impact Initiative (FYI: I will be one of the final panel speakers). This blog post is the first in a series that will be published by organisers and participants over the coming 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. (As Becky and Ben note, I posted on this topic back in December – see here.) Plus you get to vote at the end.

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

  • how businesses create and sustain jobs,
  • how governments enable and support decent work,
  • the choices available to people in their working lives.

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

First, every major report highlights the fact that developing countries are likely to be hit harder by digitisation and automation than the US and Europe. 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.

Ramalingam fig 1

Research by the Oxford Martin School also shows that some 85% 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 focussed on the formal sector, with little attention paid to the 2 billion working age adults classified as being outside of the workforce. 82% of South Asians, 66$% of Sub Saharan Africans, 65% of people in East and Southeast Asia, and 51% of people in Latin America work in the informal economy, yet relatively little attention has been 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 could 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.

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

Ramalingam fig 2

For now, suffice to say that we believe the development community needs to urgently and collectively think about:

  • the kinds of people who might be most at risk (including the illustrative groups in diagram 1)
  • the shocks and stresses that they might be subject to
  • their exposure and adaptive capacity (which will vary within and across groups)
  • the trajectories their livelihoods might take
  • the developmental impacts (social through to environmental)
  • the possible mitigation strategies

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 to donors, philanthropists, NGOs, trade unions and researchers if we are to fully to engage with these challenges. Which is precisely why we and our partners are focusing the 2017 Digital Development Summit next month on the Future of Work. 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 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?

So please vote in the poll below and share your perspectives in the comment thread – and we will incorporate the best responses and debates into the Summit proceedings.

 [poll id=”48″]

February 17, 2017
Duncan Green