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Debates in Development

The Impact of Disruptive Technology on the Nature of Work in Developing Countries: Perfect Storm or Storm in a Teacup?

Moderated by CGD President Masood Ahmed

How will the “technological revolution” impact the nature of work in developing countries? On the one hand, many jobs in developing countries—in manufacturing, agriculture, and services—lend themselves to automation. On the other hand, just because something can be automated doesn’t mean it will be. Relative factor prices, regulatory and policy frameworks, and institutional capacities to manage new technology can influence the pace of technological adaptation. Some analyses—including by CGD colleagues—find dark clouds on the horizon; others see a silver lining.

Where we come out matters. If automation makes light manufacturing uncompetitive in most developing countries, premature de-industrialization could become even more of a risk and the traditional path to higher-productivity jobs and higher incomes begins to look ephemeral. Can new jobs in the digital economy provide enough of an offsetting boom and help developing countries leapfrog into a brighter future? We know that current education systems aren’t delivering the skills needed for tomorrow’s jobs but what might come in their place? What advice can we offer developing country policymakers to help them navigate through this uncertainty?

In this inaugural CGD Debates in Development, we’ve invited experts to weigh in on these questions. I hope you’ll join the conversation, too. In two weeks, I’ll post a wrap up of our discussion. Stay tuned!

Continue the conversation on Twitter using #CGDDebates

In conclusion

Masood Ahmed

Masood Ahmed is president of the Center for Global Development. He joined the Center in January 2017, capping a 35-year career driving economic development policy initiatives relating to debt, aid effectiveness, trade, and global economic prospects at major international institutions including the IMF, World Bank, and DFID.

I’m struck by the different perspectives of the commentators in this debate. Each contribution seems compelling, yet clearly, they reflect widely varying degrees of confidence about society’s ability to manage what all agree will be quite disruptive change. Part of this difference reflects time horizons—when we look back at previous technological revolutions, they must have been tumultuous in the happening, but, in the longer term, the world moved forward and lives improved.  The difference in perspectives also comes from which parts of the change process we focus on—the exciting and often highly valuable new ways in which developmental progress can be accelerated by technology or the possible closing off of the traditional development path to higher productivity and incomes through old-style manufacturing. Regardless of the outcome, policy will play a critical role in preparing workers for the jobs of tomorrow, ensuring the economies have the infrastructure to participate, and the safety nets to protect their workers.

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About the Experts

Amolo Ng'weno

Amolo Ng'weno heads up BFA's Nairobi office and also leads the organization's East Africa division. Her current work focuses on financial services addressing development areas such as health and education. Previously, she was the Managing Director of Digital Divide Data Kenya. She is also a co-founder of Africa Online, East Africa’s first internet provider.

Charles Kenny's current work focuses on the role of technology in development, as well as on gender, governance, and anticorruption. Charles is a member of the CGD Study Group on Technology, Comparative Advantage, and Development Prospects.

Ian Goldin

Ian Goldin is also Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technological and Economic Change. He is the author of Development: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2017 and Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of Our Second Renaissance, Bloomsbury Press, 2017. You can reach him on Twitter @ian_goldin and through his website.