The next World Development Report is on Jobs, and I'm worried about it

December 13, 2011 9 By admin

market trader africaHere we go again. Last week, a bunch of us NGO types had an initial discussion with the World Bank on its next flagship World Development Report, the 2013 edition of which will be on jobs (defined as ‘productive activity that is remunerated’), to be published in late 2012. Great subject, and one that is horribly neglected. Income from work is one of the best ways to reduce poverty; decent jobs play a vital role in improving self-esteem and a sense of well-being; and unemployment is rising across the world (and underpinned the uprisings of the Arab Spring).

Dena Ringold, from the WDR team, whizzed us through a 50 slide powerpoint based on the 48 page outline of the report, which is already up on the website. She set out the main messages of the report:

“Jobs are transformational. We tend to neglect jobs when thinking about growth, while in reality they are at the center of development. Jobs connect improvements in living standards, productivity gains and social cohesion.

What is a “good job”? Some jobs do more for economic and social development than others, because they reduce poverty and inequality, strengthen value chains and production clusters, or help build trust and shared values.

Policies through the jobs lens. Understanding how labor markets interact with government and market imperfections, and how this interaction affects development goals, is the key to identifying and evaluating policies for the creation of good jobs.”

In terms of the big picture debate, putting jobs (rather than growth or productivity) at the centre of development (see pic) is a big deal, WDR jobs at the centreand may be more important than all the detailed analysis that follows.

As for typically neuralgic NGO issues:

• Yes, the WDR will discuss how jobs affect subjective wellbeing (not just income)

• Yes, there will be lots on the importance of women’s earnings in terms of their bargaining power within households and the way they spend income on food, health and education

• Yes there will be a link to the rights agenda

• But no, not much sign of links to the unpaid/care economy or to planetary boundaries/green economy agendas. Nor much discussion on the power relationships/political economy issues that determine what kinds of jobs are created. I’m also a bit worried that the discussion on social cohesion, while welcome, could become a substitute for talking about inequality.

So if there is so much good stuff, plus the Bank’s ability to synthesize mountains of academic literature and generate new data and insights, along with its laudable commitment to transparency, why did my heart sink as the conversation progressed?

Firstly, it’s the insistence on economic ‘analytics’ as the only permissible source of evidence. This pushes the discussion towards seeing jobs in terms of short-run efficiency. I raised the importance of looking at history, and studying how successful economies (Germany, Korea etc) have created and upgraded jobs over decades, but had the familiar sensation of NGOs and World Bank talking past each other.

This feeling recurs in almost every such exercise, and was brilliantly discussed by Ravi Kanbur, in a paper written after he resigned from directing the Bank’s 2000 WDR on poverty. He argued that the Bank and its critics disagree because of profound ‘differences of perspective and framework on Aggregation, Time Horizon and Market Structure’. By aggregation, he meant the Bank’s preference for large data sets v NGOs’ preference for case studies and specific historical episodes. By time horizon, he meant that the Bank typically works with medium term (2-3 years), whereas NGOs think both more short-term (what’s happening to people now?) and long term (where will they be in ten years’ time?).

By market structure, which Ravi presented as ‘the most potent difference in framework and perspective’, he meant that ‘the implicit framework of [the World Bank] in thinking through the consequences of economic policy on distribution and poverty is that of a competitive market structure of a large number of small agents interacting without market power over each other. The instinctive picture that [NGOs have] of market structure is one riddled with market power wielded by agents in the large and in the small.’ In the intervening decade, I think there has been a bit of convergence on the first two – aggregation and time horizon – but the market structure issue remains a major source of disagreement.

That’s linked to a second issue, the lack of multi-disciplinarity. Work is steeped in cultural, social, historical and political meaning way beyond the question of income, as the report partly acknowledges. But judging by the website, the team is 100% economists. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are economists (really) and they obviously have to be central to any discussion about jobs. But where are the anthropologists to discuss the deeper cultural and social meaning of work, or historians to show how it evolves over time (think of the changing attitude to women’s work or child labour – in 1724 Daniel Defoe said that all children over the age of 4 or 5 could earn their own bread)? Or political economists to discuss the link between the nature of production and political and economic power (for example, how the move away from large-scale Fordist production has undermined both trade unions and the social democratic parties they helped create)? The WDR team will doubtless commission some papers from other disciplines, but if the core staff come from an academic monoculture (OK, I know there’s lots of different kinds of economists, but still….), the danger is that insights from other disciplines will only be adopted if they can pass through the filter of ‘economic analytics’  – a potential missed opportunity to think more deeply about the nature, purpose and human value of work.

garment workers bangladeshOne example of why multi-disciplinarity matters: how deeply will the report explore the links between anxiety/insecurity and work? My colleague Moussa Haddad attended the discussion and reckons this is a key area of difference – NGOs focus (sometimes too much, in my view) on highlighting and avoiding the ‘destruction’ in creative destruction, whereas the Bank thinks more about the ‘creation’ part. Moussa asks ‘if the reallocation of jobs across sectors, and increasingly countries is happening quicker and quicker, due to the exponential growth of technological innovation – then at some point are the productivity gains outweighed by the social damage they do?’ 

Third, great that jobs are presented as the ‘hinge’ of development. But from the presentation, it looks like that hinge will then be explored almost entirely in terms of improving the enabling environment for employers. That could easily end up producing a kinder, gentler tweak of the standard Washington Consensus: make it easier to hire and fire and otherwise ‘flexibilize’ the workforce; trade unions are a ‘distortion’ to the efficient workings of labour markets etc (see Kanbur’s point three). Why not, as Christina Weller from CAFOD suggested in the meeting, focus on the enabling environment for workers, starting by asking them what makes for decent, life-enhancing jobs? Perhaps the Bank could conduct a ‘Voices of the Workers’ exercise – a miniature version of their great Voices of the Poor project – and build the WDR around the priorities it reveals, which would probably be very different from the standard ‘economic analytics’ focus on rigidities, flexibility, productivity etc? (CAFOD did a small exercise on this and found issues like health, social protection and childcare were central concerns). Could the Bank develop a metrics for the ‘social return on employment’ to sit alongside more conventional indicators?

Fourth (and I don’t really have an answer on this), the danger is that the report will trigger another round of an unproductively polarized ‘quantity v quality’ argument. To caricature ‘what we need is jobs, millions of them – even a bad job is better than no job’ versus ‘a rights-based approach means we have to focus on creating decent jobs and avoiding a race to the bottom’. Maybe the previous points could help avoid this, I’m not sure – any suggestions?

To see what I’m talking about, try listening to and critiquing this 6 minute video for the ‘Jobs Knowledge Platform’ that the Bank is launching in the New Year. Excellent on training, skills, partnership, but I couldn’t find a single reference to trade unions, power, inequality or political economy – just a reassuring but highly misleading world of apolitical fluffy bunny collaboration that ignores the role of organized labour in fighting for labour rights and decent jobs.

Brendan Martin of Public World was at the meeting and wrote this commentary on the WDR process. The WDR Team does of course have right of reply……