Impact Outsourcing Without Exploitation
Charitable aid has developed a bad reputation, and not without due cause. It’s often criticized for either failing to solve or even perpetuating the social ills it was intended to solve.
Charity alone simply doesn’t work to solve inequity or support local development. Too much aid tends to throttle local development and can be used to exert undue political pressure.
A prime example is the environmental and economic disaster caused by “donating” old clothes to Africa. Rwanda banned the import of second-hand clothing and was hit with American tariffs in return, raising more questions about who was really benefitting from the supposed charity.
Philanthropy generally benefits those giving far more than those who have received it. It has a long-established reputation as a way for the wealthy to socially posture, display their power, exert influence, and avoid taxes.
Even desperately needed food can be a source of harm. Aid donations are often seized by criminals, rebel groups, and warlords who use these resources to fund their conflicts. Yemeni children are eating their own hands, while local forces steal and sell donated food.
Tossing money at problems hasn’t worked, but there’s a new practice that promises to deliver where aid alone can’t.
Enter impact outsourcing, a way for anyone to employ a disenfranchised global worker.
Impact Outsourcing for Good
Impact outsourcing refers to using business process outsourcing (BPO) suppliers that employ people who might otherwise be excluded from the workforce.
These people might be socially marginalized, historically disadvantaged, displaced people like refugees, or living in circumstances of severe deprivation and poverty.
It aims to directly create a positive socio-economic impact in their lives through training, career development, and formal employment.
Impact outsourcing emerged in India with a single entrepreneur choosing to hire rural and disadvantaged workers for remote processing work. It takes advantage of the rise of digital work, lowered cost of computing infrastructure, and widespread internet access.
The practice grew as a quiet movement until 2010 when the Rockefeller Foundation came onboard. Several other international organizations are involved now, including BSR and the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition (GISC).
It’s now catching on as a way for companies to “outsource for good.” Impact outsourcing is used by small socially responsible firms and leading global enterprises. It can be used solely for CSR purposes or relied on as a key value creator.
An emerging branch is PRIDE or Poverty Reduction Through Information and Digital Employment. PRIDE concentrates on providing remote digital employment via information and communication technology infrastructure.
It sounds perfect. A way to eliminate poverty without relying on temporary charity, developing aid dependencies, or requiring intensive capital investments. It integrates the disenfranchised into the global supply chain since they can be trained and employed wherever they are.
The concept itself is good. And when practiced intentionally and conscientiously, impact outsourcing delivers on its promises.
However, impact outsourcing can be misused. When it is, it becomes an abusive practice that perpetuates the harm it is supposed to eradicate.
A New Method of Exploitation
Unfortunately, the idea of impact sourcing is now being misused to exploit the most vulnerable people.
Some companies take advantage of technology’s new capabilities for reaching the disenfranchised, in order to offer them work with minimal pay and virtually zero economic mobility.
The people working for them are pretty much interchangeable and located all over the world. They might be Palestinian, Venezuelan, Syrian, Indian, Kenyan, or even American.
Some are war refugees, others are residents of struggling developing nations, while others were suddenly disenfranchised by economic disaster. Some are even prisoners doing penal labor.
This is the flip side of impact sourcing. A murky micro-wage industry that has even been referred to as a refugee-industrial complex.
These workers do not receive steady, formal employment or valuable skill training. It has essentially created digital sweatshops, many of which provide critical business services to billion-dollar tech giants.
These “impact outsourcers” take advantage of those in dire circumstances. The true intention is geared towards sourcing the cheapest labor possible, not bringing these people out of poverty.
Most digital refugee employment schemes do not translate into sustainable livelihoods. They tend to offer irregular work and foster economic dependence.
They are, in fact, exploiting the causal factors that need to be rectified in order to end the poverty cycle. There are a few key areas to watch for, as these can be used either to exploit or to lift people up.
The Impact Outsourcing Issues
Even well-meaning programs can fail if they do not address the issues surrounding poverty. One program provided digital skills training to Syrian refugees living in Lebanon.
After 12 months, only 13% were employed. This is because they didn’t address employment barriers such as a lack of consistent internet access and poor soft skills.
Poverty and deprivation have several contributing factors and negative effects that must be dealt with. True impact sourcing is a holistic approach that addresses multiple issues and seeks to create permanent improvement.
This is the only way to balance the advantages of outsourcing without verging into African exploitation.
Do you know what a typical refugee camp is like? They are mostly unhygienic, inhospitable places. Many are contaminated with squalor, filth, and disease. Pests like lice, bed bugs, and rats are rife.
The water is often contaminated by pest droppings, sewage, or other contaminants.
People living there are often exposed to the elements, have inadequate food, and are left unprotected from rampant violence.
Part of the issue is that refugee camps are intended to be temporary emergency dwelling places. However, the reality is that conflict tends to leave people displaced for extended periods of time.
These are the people that some would-be impact outsourcers take advantage of.
Various groups will set up an area within a camp with computers and internet access. Refugees will then spend hours doing various microwork tasks (like data annotation and data labeling) for what are essentially micro-wages.
Other groups expect refugees to have their own internet access. These impact outsourcing practices end up exacerbating gender inequalities, social exclusion, and camp crime rates.
What kind of aid expects labor from people suffering in unsafe conditions, with no way out? A clean, safe, and supportive environment is necessary, at minimum.
Malnutrition and poverty go hand-in-hand. Impact outsourcers should acknowledge and address the devastating effects of hunger and malnutrition.
Holistic impact outsourcers provide their employees with free meals and nutrition support. This is particularly helpful in areas with unreliable electricity or unsafe water.
It can alleviate the emotional burden faced by those experiencing poverty, as many people choose to skip meals in order to pay other bills or take care of their children.
Poverty also disrupts traditional knowledge on health and nutrition. Offering nutrition classes and workshops can begin to undo that aspect of ingrained poverty.
It’s also good business sense. What kind of work output can anyone expect from the hungry and malnourished?
Hunger drops mental performance, increases impulsivity, and decreases the brain’s ability to make rational long-term decisions.
Malnutrition disrupts the entire nervous system, lowers concentration, damages the brain, and increases emotional distress and depression.
To expect data work from refugees or other displaced people, without providing vital nutrition assistance is pure exploitation.
Training, Education, and Career
Impact outsourcing thinks beyond training and mere upskilling. It’s relatively easy to train for tasks like data annotation, data labeling, and even computer vision.
But some outsourcers only train for what’s necessary to complete various job functions. There are no options for progression or growth. This effectively creates new forms of dependency and economic vulnerabilities.
Impact outsourcing without exploitation provides real education that is the foundation for future opportunities.
Instead of disparate task training, this education aims for tech literacy with digital career skills. And the training should be done at the employer’s expense, with no debt traps disguised as educational loans.
The difference between exploitative work training versus life-changing education comes down to portability.
Does the training limit them to microworking for bottom rate compensation? Or can they take their skills and experience onto a job board and qualify for other employment opportunities?
Impact outsourcing is intended to lift people out of poverty. But those who rely on microtasks and limited training are perpetuating a new underclass.
Wages and Benefits
Outsourcing takes advantage of the lower cost of living in other countries, particularly developing countries with good education levels and high numbers of English speakers.
Outsourcing at its best benefits the employee, employer, and the consumer who receives goods or services at a lower price.
However, this can quickly veer into exploitation particularly when there are power imbalances, social pressures, or restricted options.
Refugees and the stateless are always vulnerable to these conditions. Impact outsourcers often use them as an extremely low-cost labor pool, paying far below market wages.
Receiving a few dollars in pay for an entire day of digital work is enough for displaced Venezuelan workers to purchase a hearty amount of food. But is it fair?
Impact outsourcers must pay fair living wages, even when circumstances would permit a lower offer.
There’s more to life than work. Making it out of poverty and thriving in higher income classes takes a well-rounded set of skills, such as financial planning, teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, communication, workplace professionalism, and understanding the dynamics of sex-based oppression.
Soft skills are highly underrated, yet invaluable. Many people simply pick up soft skills during early childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood from family life, formal education, sports, extra-curricular activities, or early career mentorship.
The development of social skills, critical thinking, and executive functions can be blocked or interrupted by conflict, poverty, and disenfranchisement. This is one reason why aid and assistance alone tends to fail over the long term.
Impact outsourcing should shore these areas up.
Does the community benefit or suffer from aid? Can a vulnerable outsourced worker now support his or her family or are they still experiencing a hand-to-mouth subsistence lifestyle?
Outsourcing that keeps workers trapped within the same lifestyle is another form of exploitation. And training that doesn’t encourage wider community development isn’t education.
Impact outsourcing should have a ripple effect. Workers empowered with valuable skills can participate in their community’s development.
They should gain enough literacy to make impacts of their own, independent of any organization or international agency.
Compare a refugee performing data entry to an individual trained in lead research, lead generation, or computer vision. These digital skills can be put to use elsewhere or used to support their own initiatives.
This training does more than end the poverty cycle, it begins a new self-directed positive impact cycle.
Where can you find this? It takes finding a specialized service provider that is dedicated to facilitating development through employment.
Finding an Impact Sourcing Service Provider
Getting impact outsourcing right without inadvertently participating in African exploitation comes down to finding the right impact sourcing service provider (ISSP).
ISSPs are socially responsible business process outsourcers who source labor and provide their employees with support. But it’s not that simple.
ISSPs have different business models, ethical views, impact goals, and service areas. They may also be concentrated in various regions, each of which will have certain strengths and weak points. These all need to be considered to find one that aligns with your goals.
And of course, a reliable ISSP needs to have mastered the art of outsourcing, client management, and value creation.
Some impact outsourcers concentrate on providing sustenance work to refugees and others in emergency situations.
This would be appropriate if you want to outsource low-skilled data entry work. However, in this case, be careful not to use a professed ISSP who is participating in African exploitation (whether purposefully or not).
Other ISSPs source talent from economically deprived areas that are otherwise stable. These outsourcers can incorporate training and job development into their business model, then eventually offer more complex services.
If you want to impact outsource more advanced work, like computer vision research and data annotation, you need a stable population and an ISSP capable of providing training.
Impact Enterprises chooses to concentrate on impact outsourcing from Zambia. It’s a developing nation with its share of challenges, but still has a lot to offer.
Zambia is a stable, business-friendly country where English is the official language. The literacy rates have skyrocketed since a 2007 low of 61.13%. As of 2018, the general adult literacy rate was 86.75% and the youth literacy rate was 92%.
But Zambia has high levels of poverty and inequality. And it has a high youth population, ranking as one of the youngest countries on Earth, by median age.
Many young Zambians complete their education then graduate into a job market that lacks good opportunities or viable career paths.
These conditions leave up to 59% of young graduates unemployed. Without assistance they will be sucked into a poverty trap, further hindering Zambia’s overall development.
Impact Enterprises works with high school and college graduates who are fluent in English, ambitious, and quite capable. We run our own post-secondary training academy that builds tech literacy and gives them in-demand, transferable digital skills.
This sets them up for real careers, not rote tasks in low-wage digital sweatshops. It’s why our training academy graduates end up boosting the economy of their entire communities.
Impact Outsourcing Without Exploitation
Tech giants and other companies have begun to adopt impact outsourcing ideas, moving to employ the poor, stateless, disenfranchised, and refugees. But this can easily hide new forms of African exploitation.
This is a boundaryless new industry, with no regulations or legal oversight. Even with the involvement of charitable institutions, it’s all too easy to take advantage of the socioeconomically vulnerable.
Real impact outsourcing doesn’t take advantage of people with limited options. It’s the ideal type of sustainable development that creates paths out of poverty and into higher income levels.
And it makes good business sense. Our employees are skilled, well-trained data specialists who aren’t suffering in refugee camps or scraping by from task to task. This is reflected in the caliber of work they do.
We don’t pay them pennies or a couple of dollars per hour like Big Tech microwork outsourcers do. Our employees get sustainable salaries that provide them with a good living. In fact, our average employee supports almost 6 other people.
And with the lower Zambian cost of living, we still deliver a cost-effective service with the typical client saving around 50%.
It’s a sustainable model all around with zero African exploitation and zero business compromises.
If you’re open to integrating impact outsourcing into your business, you can experience a free trial today.