Will robots really take over jobs in the developing world? Notes from Washington D.C.

World Bank panel

This April the commission ran a busy programme of events in Washington D.C. Alongside several closed meetings, we held two open events pulling together some of the best thinkers to share their latest research and ideas on the Future of Work. They helped provided insights on the impact that advances in automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) may have on people in the developing world. The speakers focused on the evidence available on the disruption and opportunities caused by technological advances to job creation, and also considered how traditional models of development may be affected by a tech-driven shift in global chain-manufacturing.

Our first public event was a panel discussion at the World Bank on 18 April: “The Future of Work in Low-Income Countries”, which was followed up by an event co-hosted with the Center for Global Development (CGD) on 19 April: “What Will Automation and Artificial Intelligence Mean for Comparative Advantage and Supply Chains in the Developing World?” (Visit links for event details).

A lot of the work to date on technology and the future of jobs has centred around rich countries. Far less is known about the impact of technology on the developing world and on people who are already socially and economically marginalised. As Mary Hallward-Driemeier from the World Bank pointed out, some reports on the impact of automation have been greatly exaggerated. “Initial estimates said 50-80% of jobs would go in Africa. That would be all of agriculture in some countries! Newer estimates are more like single digits." Furthermore, we know that while access to mobile phones and internet is rising around the world, significant inequalities still remain, resulting in increased marginalisation of the poorest people, particularly women.

So, how worried should we be about reshoring and job losses in low-income countries due to advances in AI and automation? And which activities will be replaced by machines? The speakers were eager to distance themselves from the hype surrounding tech-led job loss, emphasising that the situation varies greatly across the globe, and that a number of developing countries have been successful in actually attracting manufacture. Ethiopia, for instance, is leading the way in Africa in garment production. Some sectors were already highly automated 25 years ago yet still require tasks which are best completed by hand – apparel is again a prime example. The main area in which machines do excel is manual, physical tasks in predictable settings, such as production lines and fast food manufacture. China too provides an interesting example of a country positively driving an automation boom in order to compensate for upcoming labour gaps resulting from its ageing population and its previous one child policy. India too has a huge internal market and increasing internal domestic demand offers a huge potential to counteract any jobs losses from automation.

The policy implications for governments are significant. Vijaya Ramachandran from CGD stressed that in the past governments have not always handled job losses well. “Those who lose their jobs are not always able to take advantage of safety mechanisms to get back on track”. Federica Saliola from the World Bank said that the work of the future is not just about one skill or another; “…it’s about combinations of skills, flexibility, and adaptability. This is what workers need in the future." She recommended policy responses focusing on lifelong learning to support workers’ adaptability in the changing job landscape. Problem solving and creating workforces with higher digital skills levels are critical. She highlighted that 250 million children, particularly in low-income countries, run the risk of not reaching their full potential without their governments rising to the technology challenge.

The advice from the panel experts for developing countries? There isn’t ‘a one size fits all’ policy solution. It depends on the country, the workforce’s education, skills, and abilities to adapt, as well as on the country’s ability to create, seize and hack future tech opportunities.

Governments alone however, cannot solve the complex issues arising; ensuring that private sector business is part of the conversation and solutions to inclusion is critical. Kamal Bhattacharya, Chief Innovation Officer at Kenya’s Safaricom, highlighted two further key aspects we ought to focus on: supporting and investing in entrepreneurs and taking advantage of the upcoming opportunities presented by tech: “Capitalising on opportunities is more important than losing jobs to mature markets”. What if the risk isn’t jobs that are being lost, but the jobs that may never be created?