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Increased automation could mean trouble for developing countries, think-tank warns

Developing countries must ensure that the rise of automation in the workplace must not hinder development, especially with regards to jobs that typically employ women according to a think-tank.

Increasing automation in industries risks leaving large numbers of people unemployed and widening inequality gaps, especially in the global south, the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has said in a report.

“What we’re seeing now is the emergence of technologies which are likely to mean that there will be less market for simple industrial manufacturers in poor countries because of automation,” said Andrew Norton, the institute’s director.

The report, which examines the impact of automation on work in the global south, warned that it could have “a sharply negative impact on gender equality”.

Norton, the report’s author, said sectors “in the frontline of the next wave of automation” included call centres which have provided a large number of jobs for women in some countries.

The institute said problems could be avoided if governments refocused their economic and social policies to make them more sustainable.

The report said it was vital for governments to invest in developing education systems that ensure people have the skills to thrive in a rapidly evolving labour market.

Support to smallholder farmers was also important so that they could benefit from changing technology.

Countries with natural resources should invest in sustainable development, it said, citing the example of Costa Rica which has promoted forest regeneration and subsequently reaped rewards from investing in sustainable tourism and hydropower.

The increasing “global gig economy” also offers opportunities, enabling workers anywhere in the world with good internet access to bid for work on digital platforms in areas such as translation, graphic design and accountancy.

Such global digital labour platforms are growing in volume of business at 2.5 per cent per year, the report found.

“Clearly, millions of people in developing countries can be expected to turn to outsourced work as internet access (covering more than 40 per cent of the world’s population in 2017) continues to grow,” it said.

Technology can also play a vital role in strengthening infrastructure, Norton said, pointing to Kenya’s cellphone-based money transfer service M-PESA - now used by more than two-thirds of the country’s adult population.

“Automation and other technological developments are both a warning and present opportunities. Now is the time for governments and businesses to act,” he said in a statement.

“They need to make sure that the men and women whose livelihoods are threatened by this change have the means to adjust and adapt.”

In March a report from PWC found that automation would have a profound impact on the kinds of jobs that people will be employed in in the future. 

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