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BoPsourcing: Fighting or Fuelling Inequality?

26 November 2010 5 comments

BoPsourcing – the outsourcing of work to bottom-of-the-pyramid communities – is on the rise.  Outsourcing used to mean sub-contracting work from one big firm to another nearby.  Then, with offshoring, the contracts crossed borders.  With BoPsourcing, the contracts cross several income strata as well.

BoPsourcing initiatives can be found that are run by:

All these, and many other examples from India, are onshore BoPsourcing.  There are also offshore varieties, such as Digital Divide Data, which outsources from large US organisations to telecentres in Cambodian small towns and villages.

BoPsourcing has no necessary connection with ICTs.  Indeed, many agricultural value chains are arguably examples.  Here, though, my focus is on ICT-related outsourcing.  Examples of contracts include data entry, transcription, digitisation, call centres and ICT training.

One of the key concerns about outsourcing and developing countries has been the potential to fuel income and other inequalities.  I could already see this studying software offshoring to India in the 1980s: an economic shearing in which those involved saw their incomes pull far ahead of the bulk of the population.  More recent evidence suggests offshoring increases overall wage growth but also increases inequality.

BoPsourcing presents an obvious solution.  Channelling the benefits of outsourcing down to the poor can drive wealth creation for those on the lowest incomes, and serve to reduce inequalities.

So.  Job done.  We can add BoPsourcing to our list of great development solutions.

Well, not quite yet.  First because the evidence base is very weak.  Second because BoPsourcing comes in nearly as many varieties as Heinz.  Figure 1 summarises.

 

 Figure 1: Continuum of BoPsourcing Approaches

 

There are at least four conceivable models that form the continuum (but feel free to add your own evidence and ideas):

  • Exploitative outsourcing seeks to bear down on wages and working conditions in order to minimise costs and maximise profits.  The result is an ICT sweatshop that does little to grow incomes, to deliver empowerment, or to reduce inequality.  At present this seems more of a bogeyman brandished by those at the other end of the continuum, than it is an evidence-based reality.  The potential, though, is certainly present with so many outsourcing firms seeking to drive down costs.
  • Commercial outsourcing reflects, for example, the steady diffusion of outsourcing in India and other nations, from cities to large towns to small towns and beyond.  Whether this can yet be called BoPsourcing (e.g., forgive the pun, whether BPO is BoP) is unclear.  Quite likely commercial operators have to date only got as far as large towns.  But the migration trend is clear, and it will reach poorer towns and even villages soon enough.  As for inequality, the effect is likely to be as arguable as it is for outsourcing generally: evidence is contested and, unfortunately, fought more by economists pitting ever-more complex models against each other, than on the basis of field data.
  • Ethical outsourcing (also known as socially-responsible outsourcing) takes commercial outsourcing and requires that it meets certain minimum standards; typically relating to labour practices but also starting to include environmental issues.  The International Association of Outsourcing Professionals has taken a lead on this.  This is likely to have some impact on inequality but, again, the extent to which such work really reaches the BoP as yet is questionable.
  • Social outsourcing (also known as developmental outsourcing) differs from ethical outsourcing as fair trade differs from ethical trade.  Ethical outsourcing involves existing commercial players with either a commitment to or measurement of adherence to standards.  Social outsourcing involves new non-market intermediaries who sit between the client and the BoP sub-contractor.  Social outsourcing most definitely does reach the BoP; indeed that is its raison d’être.  It has already been shown to increase incomes, increase asset holdings, increase skills, and increase empowerment.  It is therefore likely to reduce inequality.

True ICT BoPsourcing is on the increase – you only have to monitor the growing number of initiatives to see that.  Much of the more commercial end of outsourcing has yet to get this far.  It’s more like MoPsourcing (i.e. middle of the pyramid) just now, but cost pressures, supply-demand gaps, ICT diffusion, and growing awareness of BoPsourcing mean this is changing.

The impact of these trends on inequality will depend on which outsourcing model comes to dominate the BoPsourcing business.  If social outsourcing wins, then so too will the poor.  If exploitative outsourcing wins, the opposite will be true.

In practice we may well see some messy combination of models, as social and commercial approaches intersect.  For the social outsourcing intermediaries, the lure of big clients, contracts and growth may pull them into bed with commercial operators.  Conversely, the operators will be attracted by the contacts, expertise and CSR-window dressing that social intermediaries provide.  The poor themselves will get jobs, skills and income.  Whether they will see the structural transformation necessary to really clobber inequality, only time will tell.

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