THE STATE OF WORK




Selim Jahan (PhD) is a popular face in the sphere of human development. As director of United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR) office, responsible for the flagship global report, Jahan remains one of authoritative minds with detailed knowledge about global trends and differentials. An economist, Jahan served in various organisations, including the World Bank, International Labour Organisation, UNESCO and McGill University in Canada, before joining UNDP in 1992. Since then, he has seen 10 HDRs published and distributed globally. In the wake of the release of the 10th HDR, titled, “Work for Human Development”, FORTUNE’s OP-ED EDITOR, GETACHEW T. ALEMU, sat with Jahan to discuss the findings of the report and the policy implications. Excerpts of the exclusive interview follows.

Fortune: The new Human Development Report titled, “Work for Human Development”, comes at the very time that, globally, unemployment remains at the lower end of the cycle, and work itself remains suppressed by economic factors. What do you want to bring as an impact by releasing this report at this point in time?

Selim Jahar: We want to bring three impacts. The first impact you will see from the title of the report, is work; we are not talking about employment and jobs. And the reason we have chosen that particular word, is basically, from a human development perspective, work is broader than jobs. It includes paid employment, of course, but it also includes unpaid care work, voluntary work and creative expression, like music, writing, painting. Because this broader notion of work has implications for human development. We assume and we hope that the world community will look at work from this broader perspective.

There are 970 million voluntary workers who are providing a helping hand to many communities – to many world communities. They are not paid. But they are basically contributing to human development. Some of these aspects of work need to be expanded.

The second issue is that if we bring it down to the paid jobs and the traditional employment, and you have made a reference that employment has not been in the scene for quite some time, you are absolutely right. Employment has been out of fashion for quite some time.

So we are also proposing in this particular report, that countries in the developing region should also have national employment strategies. It should bring the issue of employment to the centre of policy making; it should integrate employment strategies into the national development plans or national development strategies. That is what we are thinking.

The third issue is, basically, if we look around the world, and also in Africa, youth unemployment is a major issue. Young people now constitute 30pc of the global population. And in many societies, young people are not getting jobs.

On one hand, there is a mismatch between the skills and the demand, but at the same time, let us also recognise the fact that we also have a learning system which is more geared towards yesterday – not geared towards tomorrow. Therefore, we are also proposing that we have to look at a whole learning system.

We have the new ways of thinking, we should have new ways of learning, we should have new ways of organising work so that we can create more innovations – more innovative work for younger people where they can be basically employed. So those are the new things that we are trying to bring to the attention of the policy makers, so that they can undertake policies.

Q.In view of the pertinent policy challenges that policy makers around the world are currently facing, are you hopeful that they are going to listen to the recommendations you are making?

I am hopeful that they will have to listen to our voices. The main reason is that unemployment is not only an economic issue. If people are out of work, that has social implications, that has political implications, that has other kinds of implications.

Q.In the report, your advice for policy makers to give attention to creating opportunities, ensuring the well-being of workers and developing targeted actions. These things are partly overlapping – inclusive of each other, but they also seem to require some sort of priortisation for policy makers. If you were to advise developing countries, like Ethiopia, where do you want the priority to be?

All three. I do not agree with you that they are overlapping. They are not overlapping – because when we are talking about expanding work opportunities, we are talking about creating work, creating jobs and how you can really seize the opportunities that the outer world is giving. It is more a question of creating the demand side.

When we are talking about protecting the benefits as well as the rights of workers, it is a totally different issue; because when you bring the workers to work, you also want them to have quality work.

There has been a notion, “good job”, and if you ask my grandmother what a good job is, she will say, a good job is where the pay is good. But we know today that a good job is not only where the pay is good but also where there is no discrimination, where there is the sense of participation, where there is a platform for your voice, where there is cohesion and teamwork among the different workers. That is a good job.

Therefore, I think, in terms of the benefits for the workers, the good job should be there. In terms of the benefits for the workers, there should be equity in terms of the benefits the workers are getting. There has to be protection for workers when they get out of the workforce, for example.

Trade unionism is going down in every country – the membership of trade unions, so therefore the organisations and the organising [of] workers so that they have a voice in determining what is good for them, has to be there.

Then, we set targeted actions, which means there will be specific actions needed for different groups. I will give you a simple example. Persons with disabilities – they were much discriminated against in the workforce. But you have to remember that persons with disabilities can do things differently. They are differently abled – they are not disabled. And if we want to ensure work for those people with disabilities, first of all you have to train them differently.

Q How many offices in different countries have the kind of accessibility where a person in a wheelchair can go? How many offices have the kinds of computers or the kinds of office machines which a person with disability can use?

So you need more targeted actions to deal with the constraints these people are facing, and overcome them. So if you ask me what they should prioritise, I would say all three areas.

Q.You mentioned to me and I have seen in the report, one area that you recommended for countries to have a national employment policy. But in many African countries, including Ethiopia, that remains a major policy gap. Still, creating a policy framework takes its own time. How should governments approach work until such time that they create a policy framework to actually move things?

Let us not make perfection the enemy of the good. We do not live in a perfect world and if you wait for a perfect world to happen, it will never happen. So there are certain things that you have to work in the short-term, there are certain things that you have to work in the medium-term and there are certain things that you have to do in the long-term.

Q.Take the short-term. Let us take the informal sector. Now, lots of people say, let us make the informal sector formal.

Is that the solution?

I do not think so. I think the solution would be that in most areas the informal sector does not have the legal status, so they are being harassed by different groups of people. The informal sector does not enjoy the kinds of incentives – for example, if they want to import some goods for their work, it is not there. If there is a technology transfer in the informal sector, then you say this is piracy.

Therefore, in the short-term, if you just recognise some basic things for the informal sector – that they have a legal entity, they would not be harassed.  They will have incentives, they will have access to credit and everything. That could be done very easily in the short-term. If that is done, then the informal sector can generate a lot of work because they don’t have to do it in an underground fashion. You know what I mean. So that can be done.

In the medium-term, the major job-creating entities in many societies, are small and medium size entities. The constraints the small and medium sized entities face credit, marketing facilities, and sometimes you do not have the capable person to run it.

In credit you will often see that this particular small and medium sized enterprise do not have collateral so the bank says, we cannot give you credit. Government can generate certain entities where the government becomes the collateral for this. Look at the Grameen Bank, very simple example. Yes it is giving a lot of support to destitute women.

Q.What is the collateral for the Grameen Bank?

The collateral is basically the community solidarity. Therefore, if the government can support these small and medium enterprises, in terms of being the collateral, they can get credit.

In the longer term, you would need to change the learning system. The learning system should be fit for the future because you cannot have skills of yesterday which can do work for tomorrow. In that sense, the education system – the curriculum and the learning system – needs to change. And that is a long-term prospect. So I think the government should look at the short-term measures it can take immediately to improve the situation.

Q.You have the chance to sit with many presidents, prime ministers and heads of state. Do you sense the urgency of the matter within the high echelons of power both in Africa as well as in other regions?

Well, I think the urgency and the understanding that this is an urgent issue, is very much there. I think there are two things the political system recognises that are urgent. One is the whole question of people out of work. Because one has to remember that if people do not have work, it is not only the livelihood, they do not have dignity. They do not have a sense of participation. And that can create a frustration and a tension. That can blow up in many societies. That urgency politicians understand.

The other urgency I have found in many countries where people, particularly politicians recognise, is the inequality. Inequality in terms of income, inequality in terms of opportunity. Because if inequality increases, again there will be tensions in the society. The social cohesion would be destroyed. And I think there is also an urgent realisation among different politicians in many countries that this is a serious problem and that [something] needs to be done quite significantly and quickly.  But you also have to remember two things.

The timespan of a political system is quite short. Politicians look at five years of their tenure, for example, so the longer term planning sometimes is not there.

And in many developing countries, whoever comes after one government, tries to throw out everything the preceding government has done, and tries to do something new. And that sometimes acts as a barrier to the continuity that needs to be there.

Q.The other thing that you talked about in this report is about workers’ rights and benefits and how to guarantee rights and benefits. Unfortunately, a global economic downturn and a lower commodity cycle, including oil and other commodity cycles, means the terrain for rights and benefits is getting rougher with each day, especially in resource dependent countries. Where do you see the balance?

The economic downturn that you have talked about, the crisis that you have referred to and the lack of resources that you have pinpointed, have not prevented the rich from becoming more rich. In 1978, a CEO in the United States used to get around 30 times more than the average wage of an average worker. Today, during the rough time, the rough terrain, they earn 296 times more than the average worker.

The income share of highly skilled workers has gone up. The income share of low skilled workers has gone down. One per cent of the global population owns 5opc of the global wealth. Eighty per cent of the global population has six per cent of global wealth.

Therefore, I do not think that the economic downturn or the crisis, have actually reduced the resources. It has just changed the distribution of resources. So if we go back to the whole question of equitable growth, equitable development, I think we at the same time, protect workers’ rights, and raise their benefits.

You will see in the report, we have mentioned two countries and provided graphs, where the productivity is going up but the wages have remained flat. So there are more gaps between productivity and wages.

The question is, where is that gap going?

That gap is going to the top, richer class of different societies. So when the question of economic downturn comes in, when the question of crisis comes in, why should the workers suffer at the cost when the share of the richer class is going up?

Therefore, I do not see the economic downturn as the crisis, as a cause for which the wages should go down, for which the workers’ rights cannot be protected and their wages cannot be increased. I see it more as the pie going in favour of somebody else.

Q.The nature of work is also changing, largely as a result of the disruptive impact of technology. Do you see governments and regulators basically catching up with this change in nature of work and jobs?

I think the speed is different. The speed at which this digital revolution is evolving is unbelievable. But the speed at which the institutional changes need to order themselves is not happening – to be very honest. Therefore, when the digital revolution is taking place, we also need a kind of regulatory framework, to channel it properly and productively. But the regulatory framework is still lagging behind, so I think many societies, many governments should focus on what sort of regulatory framework they should have, in order to channel this digital revolution more to the benefit of common people.

That happened, in fact, with regard to the financial institutions. If you remember, before the crisis of 2008, the financial institutions have developed different kinds of instruments: various kinds of derivatives.  And as a result, the whole thing basically blew up. Largely because there was a very weak regulatory framework for those financial institutions.

That analogy I am bringing in, is also true in terms of the digital revolution. Unless you have that kind of regulatory framework, which can pace up with the digital revolution, there may be disruptions.   Yes, you are absolutely right.

Q.Another very sensitive area in the discussions about work is the gender differential within the workplace. Women are still paid lower than their male counterparts and their vertical mobility is significantly hindered in such a way that finding women in the boardrooms is really very difficult. There seems to be an understanding about the scenario, but policy seems to be passive as compared to the general understanding of the issue. As a lead author of this report, are you happy about policy and the way policy is reacting to this popularly understood differential that’s costing global economies so hugely? 

There are two issues to that. While you mention policies, there are certain policies which are coming up in different countries. For example, for women, the flexible arrangement of work has been in many countries – where women can work from home, women can try to balance their care work and paid work. That is happening.

In countries like Norway, Sweden and Israel, there is paternal parental leave – where fathers can also take leave when a child is born. So it is not only maternity leave but also paternity leave. And the incentive is being given to fathers to take that particular leave so that women can come back to the job market.  It is happening in many countries. Yes, there is a glass ceiling, but there have been some cracks.  In senior management, there is still a long way to go, but women are moving toward senior management.

In terms of the policies, I think there are slow movements in policies.  But I highlight another angle here, which is not related to policies. This is basically social norms and values. Because the expectation of the society is still very much that if it comes to care work, if it comes to domestic work, it is the right and responsibility of women.

In the United States, men said we have now 100pc more time in terms of taking care of children. Basically, they have increased their time from 10 minutes to 20 minutes – so that is a hundred per cent increase. The women, they used to do 100 minutes of child care, now it has gone down to 90 minutes.

So the social norms are still very much against women, because we also think of certain work as women’s work. Care work is women’s work. You have seen the experiences of Liberia and other countries during the Ebola crisis.

Who are the caregivers? Women. So, largely, this is not a matter of policy, it is a matter of advocacy, it is a matter of awareness, which is also a matter of (if I may say so), the role of media in doing those things. If those norms change, I think policy will follow. If you try to drive policies but the norms are not changing, values are not changing, that will not take you that far.

Q.You also mentioned talk about youth unemployment. Africa, including Ethiopia, constitute a bulging youth population, but largely, these youth are unemployed. And when it comes to mainstream politics, there seems to be some level of sensitivity about what this is going to bring. But from the economic side, there seems to be less of a sensitivity to include and bring jobs to the youth population. What do you recommend as a major action for governments on this side of the world to take?

Before coming to action, let us make some points. Whether it is the government or the society, one should realise the fact that when we talk about younger people and youth unemployment, we have a modern urban-centric perspective. We do not think about the rural youth. But the rural youth are not going to go back to the same kinds of jobs that their fathers and forefathers have done. They are not going to go back to agriculture.

They would like to have work in certain skill-based areas, where the work is productive and where they can really benefit from a good salary. That has to be kept in mind. Bringing them to agriculture, public works programmes for them, infrastructure for them and keeping them in traditional jobs is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because their pattern of needs satisfaction has changed, and because they know about the other opportunities out there.

Lots of these young people are not going to go for wage employment. They want to get into self-employment. When we did a survey in the Arab states, 39pc of the younger people said that they want to set up their own business. They are not going to work for the government, they are not going to work for the public sector; they are not going to work from nine to five for any private company. They want to have their own self-employment.

Start-up is a favourite term of the younger people. They want to start something new. They want to do something innovative. And that is a fact of life.

There is a large number of youths whom we call NIET (not in employment, or education or training).

Where are they?

In Spain, the youth unemployment rate is 53pc. Of that 53pc, 28pc are NIET. They are not in school – they have dropped out; they are not looking for jobs; and they are not in training. So they are basically doing nothing. Given this overall framework that I have just mentioned, a couple of things can be done immediately.

One thing is that there are not innovative areas where young people can really start their own business.  And I think policies can provide the kind of credit, the kind of mentor services, counseling, marketing information, and all kinds of things. And these people are technology savvy, so you do not need offices like this to provide them with this kind of package. You can do it by using your Internet or using the kind of ICT that you have.

I think if the younger people are skilled, you can also match them in the global value chain. One simple example – there are lots of educated younger people in India who are without jobs. Now in the United States, if I am a doctor, and I diagnose 100 patients every day, they use the dictaphone and give dictation or get a secretary to write up all the diagnoses.

That costs a lot in the United States, so what do they do?

They take the dictation, send it by email to somebody in India when they close their office at five o’clock, in New York. Next morning, the whole transcript comes to the doctor. Cheap – but at the same time, those people have got a job through the outsourcing of the service. This is also something we have to think about the younger [in considering] what the young people want to do.

A lot of younger people want to do what they call social enterprises. They are not going for profit, but they want to do something good for the society. And there can be support for the government for that kind of action.

In Germany youth unemployment is low compared to the rest of Europe. And the one thing that has done the trick in Germany is the paid internship system. You get out of the university, you have a paid internship either in Volkswagen or in Mercedes Benz or in any other company. And that internship for two years actually gives you the opportunity to think about your future and what to do about that.  So that is also something that can be done.

Finally, I think if we have funding and can look at the growth around innovative ideas and give that kind of funding, to younger people for innovative ideas, in terms of work, in terms of getting new services, I think that would also work.

My point is that traditional thinking of generating jobs in agriculture or through public works programmes, or through public sector employment, is not going to work. We have to think differently.

Q.Talking about the supply side, the nature of work and the way it is being done, is changing. And that puts a pressure on employers and company owners and shareholders. What is your general assessment of the sphere of employers in terms of adopting to the change that is happening?

Now the job market has become global for highly skilled workers. There has never been a better time to be highly skilled workers.  There has never been a worse time to be low skilled workers. If you are highly skilled, the whole global market is your job market. And that also depends on the kind of education background from which you have come – if you are from a prestigious school with high skill, you are employed everywhere.

The employers in most cases complain that they do not get what they need. And therefore they would go to other countries, they would try to hire in other countries and do it. Because at the end of the day, let us be honest, employers want to maximize their profit – most of them. So therefore they do not want to waste time. They want to get the required skill, whatever they want to get it from – but the question is whether we are promoting, providing producing that kind of skill.

Q.You have been mentioning inequality between the highly educated and skilled people and the low educated, unskilled people. And that problem seems to be even worse when it comes to developing countries. What would be the important advice provided to statesmen in terms of reducing this inequality?

I would talk of three things. One thing is profit-sharing between labour and employers. Give the employees a kind of ownership in the company.  If there is profit-sharing, basically the whole profit is not going to you as an employer; a part of it is coming to the employee. That is something which would reduce inequalities.

There have to be redistributive policies. What do I mean by that?  If you look at the tax structure of many developing countries, it is not progressive. Yes, in Scandinavian countries, it is very progressive, but in developing countries, you start with personal income tax. As you go up, it is not going up progressively. If you have progressive taxation, and then use that money to provide the basic social services, like education, like health, like water and sanitation to poorer people, inequalities will go down.

You need to also have pro poor growth. This means that you try to generate or organise growth in those sectors where poor people live. In many African countries, you have a very high rate of growth. But most of that growth may be coming from extractive industries. In many countries the growth is being driven by the ICT sector, without any backward and forward linkages with the rest of the economy. If you have policies where the growth can be generated here but the demand of this ICT sector should also go to other sectors then, there will be more equitable distribution.

Then finally, you need a kind of social protection system. One of the ways inequality has been dealt with in a country like Brazil, which used to have very high inequality, is the conditional cash transfer.  They have this programme Bolsa Familia. Mexico has Prospira. That has reduced inequality. India today has the National Employment Guarantee Scheme – rural employment guarantee scheme, where 100 days of work are guaranteed by the state – by the federal government for poor people.  That has really reduced inequality. Bangladesh has a rural asset programme for destitute women, where women are being used for making roads, and they are paid. As a result, that has also lifted [them] out of poverty.

Q.Ethiopia has been growing, but its human development index (HDI) rating has not been equivalently growing. And there has been some disagreement between UNDP as a major publisher of the Human Development Report annually and the HDI rating, and government. The government thinks that the strides the country is been making is not been rightly represented in this HDI index, in general. How do you assess the quality of data that you use in order to produce this annual HDI?

In terms of the HDI and human development, Ethiopia is doing good. Without mentioning the rank, or the value, over the last 25 years, life expectancy in Ethiopia has gone up by 17 years, which is quite an achievement.  Income has doubled in Ethiopia over the years, so I think there has been improvement in human development in Ethiopia. If you take the GNP rank, and also the human development rank, the human development rank is higher than the GNP rank, which means that Ethiopia has been successful in translating its income to human development outcomes.

If you adjust the human development in terms of inequality, Ethiopia is doing better than sub-Saharan Africa.  By the way, the life expectancy in Ethiopia, is better than that of sub-Saharan Africa. In broader terms, Ethiopia can celebrate the kinds of achievements that it has made.

Then coming to your technical question – you will also have to remember that most of the indicators in the human development index do not change very fast. In economic terms, we call them strong valuables. They are not float variables.  Life expectancy does not go up very quickly, for example. You do not see changes very fast in terms of the HDI.

But also, I want to make the particular point when I talk to the media. Development is not a snapshot.  Development is a continuum. It takes time to have this kind of development.  The issue with the data, which you have raised, has been raised by many governments and the problem in here.

The Human Development Report office, which produces the report, is the secondary users of data. We are not the primary producers of data. And when we use the data, our mandate by the UN is that we have to use data from UN agencies and the Bretton Woods institutions.  So our life expectancy comes from the UN Population Division; our educational data come from UNESCO, our income data come from the World Bank.

I know that at the national level sometimes, different countries (and it is not only Ethiopia), they may have more recent data. But in many cases the national governments do not make those data available very quickly to the international system. Every year, in July, for example, we send a letter to the national statistical offices, urging them, to make whatever recent data they have, available to the UN agencies and to the World Bank as quickly as possible. And if they do that, then we can use them.

People often say why do not you use national data? We cannot use national data because we also rank countries – we compare them.

National data have different methodologies in different countries. So that would be actually comparing apples and oranges. So in a report like this where you have to compare countries and their achievements, you have to have a consistent set of data coming from a consistent source. And that is why we use the UN agency data and the Bretton Woods institutions’ data.

I will use this opportunity to make that plea to all national statistics agencies, if you have more recent data, please make them available as quickly as possible, to the international organisations, UN agencies, which collect these data. If they do it, then also, the gap between the publication date of the report and the HDI, will be reduced.

Q.In a democratic system, all the policy recommendations that your report has made would relatively be easy, less costly and effective. But over the years, democracy itself has come under threat because of many social and economic factors around the clock. Are you hopeful about politics living up to the expectation in terms of work, workers rights and benefits in general?

Politics is not an abstract term.  Politics is about people. Political economy is also about people.  I am hopeful that the political system, the political economy will rise to the occasion and will move fast. But in many societies as you know, the three trends – the economic trends, the social trends and the political trends do not go at the same rate.

In some cases, the social development moves faster compared to the economic development. I am hopeful that the politics of it will live up to the occasion and also try to bring the whole issue of the work and workers rights, the benefits, into their policy making. At the end of the day, these things are also good for better politics as well as for better societies.

Q.You have been employed within the UN system and remain a senior staff. Which part of this report makes a very personal sense for you?

The part of the report that makes very personal, and I am very attached to it, is the gender imbalances – in paid and unpaid work. That is very personal for me. I have seen my mother do it, unpaid care work for all of us, without the due recognition; I have seen lots of my friends’ mothers do it; the next generation – in my wife’s case, it has changed a little bit – not that much; in my daughter’s case, it has even improved a little bit there, but still the social norms and values try to put women into particular pre-assigned things.

So women have constrained choices and have adaptive choices. If I said in very personal terms, for example, if my wife and I both are professionals, if I am transferred somewhere else, the expectation would be that my wife would follow me. If my wife is transferred somewhere else, the expectation would never be that I would follow her. That is a reality. That particular chapter is very personal to me.



Published on Dec 21,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 816]


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