The upside of outsourcing

To match Insight INDIA-OUTSOURCING/I heard an excellent, in-depth interview this week with William Easterly, the development economist and author of a new book called The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Easterly, a controversial figure, is critical of top-down development experts — he names Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, among others — who push technocratic, centralized approaches to alleviating poverty. Instead, he argues that the best way to promote economic development is for westerners to push for democracy, human rights and free markets in the world’s poorest countries.

Easterly cites, among others, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has said: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Others disagree, noting that parts of India came perilously close to famine just a decade ago. What’s more, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while suppressing human rights, but allowing economic freedom.

I’m in no position to try to adjudicate the debate about how poor countries become rich, but I was thinking about Easterly’s faith in markets and global trade as I wrote my story this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. The story looks at an idea called “socially-responsible outsourcing” or simple “impact sourcing,” and a nonprofit called DDD that tries to put that idea into practice. (DDD stands for Digital Divide Data.) DDD operates businesses in Cambodia, Kenya and Laos that employ young people, typically high school age, to provide information technology and web research, mostly to clients in the US. The goal of the enterprise is to provide economic opportunity to the poor, DDD’s founders told me.

Here’s how my story begins:

So much attention is paid to deplorable factory conditions in poor countries that it’s easy to forget that global supply chains for electronics, apparel and toys have helped lift masses of people out of poverty. Since 1980, 680 million people have risen out of poverty in China which has seen its extreme-poverty rate fall from 84% to about 10%, largely because of trade, reports The Economist.

Now, a small number of companies, nonprofits and foundations want to see if the rapidly growing global supply chains that process data and operate call centers — an industry usually described as business processing outsourcing, or BPO — can be deployed to help alleviate poverty in Africa and South Asia. Can outsourcing, a business driven by the search for cheap labor, reconfigure itself to do good?

“By responsibly and ethically employing hundreds of thousands of people, BPOs have a role to play in shifting the social landscape in emerging economies around the world,” says a report called Outsourcing for Social Good from Telus International, a Canadian outsourcing firm, and Impakt, a social responsibility consultancy.

Others agree. The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $100m to a project called Digital Jobs Africa that aims to improve one million lives in six African nations. A nonprofit called Samasource organizes poor women and youth in Africa and Asia to deliver data services to such businesses as Microsoft and Google. And a company called Cloud Factory that operates in Kenya and Nepal says digital outsourcing can “flatten the world, connect people into the global economy and raise up leaders to fight poverty and change their communities.”

The pioneer of what is called socially-responsible outsourcing or simply impact sourcing is DDD (Digital Divide Data), a New York-based nonprofit that operates for-profit data centers in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya. DDD and its impact-oriented peers set themselves apart from outsourcing giants such as Tata, Accenture and Infosys because, they says, they deliberately seeks out workers in the some of the world’s poorest places and provides them not just with jobs, but with the education, training and career counseling they need to rise into the middle class.

“Our ultimate mission is to alleviate poverty,” says Jeremy Hockenstein, 42, the founder and CEO of DDD. “We focus on students who are finishing high school, who are very motivated and very smart and who come from low-income homes.”

Having met Jeremy Hockenstein (via Skype) and his co-founder Michael Chertok (face to face), I have no doubt of their good intentions. Both gave up more lucrative careers to start the nonprofit. DDD is about helping its global employees, not exploiting them.

But their work raises an intriguing question about how much intentions matter when it comes to infotech outsourcing, or all of global trade, for that matter. Despite all the the abuses in the global manufacturing supply chain, it seems inarguable that the factory jobs created in China, Mexico, India and Bangladesh have benefited the poor in those countries. Is it possible the Walmart and Apple have done more to alleviate poverty than Bill Gates and Jeffrey Sachs?

You can read the rest of my story here.

My Greenpeace conundrum

climate-change-pol_1203588cGreenpeace USA wants me to renew my annual membership. I’m ambivalent.

A letter signed by Phil Radford, who leads Greenpeace USA, paints a dire picture of the state of the environment:

We all see polluters poisoning our air, water and land; killing innocent wildlife, destroying our forests, pillaging aquatic life, increasing global warming and endangering human health–particularly the health of our children.

This is, alas, mostly true. US air quality is improving, although 40 percent of Americans live in counties that sometimes have unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Water quality in most American streams and river is poor, the most recent report from EPA says. The amount of forest land in the US has been more or less stable for about a century, says the USDA’s Forest Service, but just this week, it was revealed that valuable forest land is being destroyed to supply “green” wood for burning in Europe. As for global warming–yes, there’s lots to worry about, and Greenpeace’s activism around the climate issue has been one reason why I’ve supported the organization for years. [click to continue…]