The outsourcing of in-house business operations has existed long before the advent of globalization in the 19th century, but the more recent offshore outsourcing stories are the ones we remember today: cultural imperialism in Indian call centers, garment sweatshop still prevalent all over the world and suicide after suicide at Foxconn in Shenzhen. But within today’s Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, knowledge, legal and particularly information technology-based business outsourcing have taken center stage. Not surprisingly, high and growing technology penetration rates in the Global South have not gone unnoticed among socially minded enterprises and the international development sector—which brings us to the ICT4D version of BPO: Impact Sourcing or “microwork.”
There are several very important differences between what one might call conventional outsourcing and Impact Sourcing (IS). Unlike commercial, non-socially driven BPO models, IS targets unemployed or underemployed technology-savvy youth, often women, with the goal to improve their livelihoods temporarily through short-term work. Moreover, IS (often, but not always!) strives to facilitate transferrable skill sets that allow micro-workers to access other, more demanding and lucrative employment in the long term. In other cases, workers may rise within the organization to perform more demanding tasks and thus occupy a more permanent position. According to technology theorist Richard Heeks and sociologist Shoba Arun, IS can be understood as a hybrid of “workfare outsourcing” which are government employment schemes, usually targeting the rural population of developing countries, and “commercial outsourcing,” the competitive contracting out of internal and external services to private sector firms. In fact, governments are increasingly interested in adopting microwork initiatives at a global scale in order to tackle relentless youth un(der)employment.
With a potential reference to microfinance that captured the international development field and revolutionized financial inclusion through ICT4D since the 1990s and 2000s, IS is also referred to as “microtask” or “microwork.” Using the crowdsourcing principle—first coined in 2006—of making a piece of work available to a crowd of workers, IS follows the example of famous and (relatively/arguably?) successful crowdsourcing platforms such as Wikipedia. The overwhelming advantage of crowdsourcing is that it usually results in a faster and cheaper product with fewer mistakes, when validation systems are in place.
One of the first platforms to implement paid crowd-sourced work was Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), offering low-skilled computerized tasks in exchange for pay between $0.01 and $10. The concept has since been adopted by NGOs and social businesses working in international development, one of the better-known examples being Samasource that provides digital work to the world’s poor (emphasizing women’s employment) with financial support from individuals and the philanthropic arms of MasterCard, Rockefeller, Ford, Cisco, eBay, Google, among others. It does so through partnerships with local NGOs who train the workers and provide the necessary resources. Jobs range from audio and video transcription to digitizing books for Google, transcribing receipts for Intuit, analyzing conflicting user data submitted to LinkedIn and tagging photographs for Getty Images. Yes, humans still outperform computers in a myriad of (even elementary) tasks!
Considering its many advantages and goals, microwork appears to be a triple-win situation. It aims to achieve: 1. developmental benefits for low-income populations, 2. economic benefits and savings for employers and 3. political benefits from satisfying governance, private sector and developmental agendas. But there are several deterrents. First, the appropriate interface. The most significant technological innovation for the urban poor was and remains the mobile phone, while personal computers are still rare. Microwork can be done on a mobile phone—MobileWorks’ early model, mClerk and txtEagle are just some examples—but research has found that computers increase productivity immensely. Following the example of the first major PBO operation, call centers, cyber cafes represent one possible solution as the implementation of workstations. Indeed, research conducted in Kenya and India indicates that both, cybercafé owners and customers, are eager to implement such workstations.
Microwork is in its early stages but developing incredibly quickly: market demand quintupled in 2010 and almost quadrupled in 2011. In addition, foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation have launched massive initiatives that seek to catalyze sustainable ICT-enabled employment opportunities for poor youth. In the face of all this (too good to be true?) optimism, it is nevertheless important to point out that it still remains to be seen whether it is indeed possible to make profit by doing good.
Christina Gossmann is a Master of City Planning student at UCBerkeley. Before returning to graduate school, she worked as a freelance journalist and researcher in cities of the Global South. Email her at and follow her at @chrisgossmann.