Good jobs in conflict: A difficult agenda

Action on pay and working conditions in conflict-affected situations is needed, and this should be connected to the long history of working people fighting to combat exploitation through collective action.

One of the big policy questions we’re grappling with in the SLRC is what would a good jobs agenda for fragile states look like? This is important and topical – WDR 2011 [^] had security, justice and jobs as the key issues for recovery from conflict. And Justine Greening in January 2014 argued that it’s ‘all about jobs’. But evidence from conflicts about how labour markets work, what sort of jobs people have, what they think about them and how you might create more or better jobs is still thin on the ground.

I presented about this to people at DFID last week as part of meeting presenting research findings from across a range of DFID funded research programmes including Migrating out of Poverty [^], Effective States and Inclusive Development [^] (ESID), The Justice and Security Research Programme [^] (JSRP) and our work on access to services in conflicts (SLRC [^]). My colleague Rachel Slater focussed on the one of the big findings from the first round of our longitudinal panel survey – that we don’t find any clear link between access to services and peoples’ views of the legitimacy of government at different levels. Which suggests a need for caution in claiming that service delivery contributes to state-building.

I was presenting 3 studies that set out to bolster the evidence base on jobs in fragile states authored by Richard Mallet, Adam Pain, Giulia Minoia and Teddy Atim supported by researchers from AREU [^]. One focused on the catering market [^] (jobs in bars, restaurants and hotels) in Lira Northern Uganda, another on tailoring in Kabul [^] and a third on the onions market in Nangarhar [^] Afghanistan. There’s lots of rich detail in these case studies (more than I can summarise here) so do read them. And I should note that I’m busy claiming credit here for other people’s work.

In Lira, youth are working and sometimes making an OK living in bars, restaurants and hotels but with lots of problems with irregular pay, poor working conditions and exploitation. There are many different forms of exploitation including zero job security, a continuum of sexual harassment particularly for women and costs (breakages, stolen beer) come directly out of employees’ wages. Asked what would a good job be – ‘one where you are not exploited’ was a common part of the answer.

In Kabul, tailoring is unsurprisingly highly gendered and all about social networks and relationships. There’s an informal but fairly structured apprenticeship system for young men and a clear route from that to starting your own business. It’s much more difficult for women but there are some brave and enterprising examples in the paper of women who’ve managed to carve out space within the very restricted social context to run their own businesses.

The paper on the onions trade in Nangarhar presents a complex and inter-linked market with export and imports to Pakistan and India and trade within Afghanistan. It’s deeply embedded in social relations and power and politics at the provincial level. Contrary to what some of the big aid programmes try to provide, credit and information aren’t the main constraints to better business, predatory politics that dominate key trading networks are.

So what are the policy implications from these 3 studies?

You could read them as a ringing endorsement for a focus on private sector development and a focus on growth, infrastructure and the enabling environment to unleash entrepreneurship.

But are policy implications apolitical? And do they emerge technocratically from the evidence? Too often I think DFID assumes a neat linear and apolitical technocratic path from research to evidence to influence on policy and practice.

I read the 3 papers and see the need for action on pay and working conditions, and connect that to the long history of working people fighting to combat exploitation through collective action. That’s a policy strand that you see less of in DFID’s current transformative approach to economic development and might not be one that they want to take to ministers in the run up to purdah [^].

However, with that in mind I see five policy / practice implications

  1. There’s some good news here – people within conflicts are getting by and scraping a living together in spite of the impacts of conflict.
  2. World Bank type doing business reforms would be largely irrelevant. Formal rules and regulations aren’t the issue – so Afghanistan or Uganda could climb 50 places in the rankings with little effect.
  3. There’s a clear case for examining the relevance, effectiveness and coverage of existing efforts to support jobs and livelihoods. There was little sign of aid making any difference in our studies. Where aid is present, what is the focus on microcredit and vocational skills training actually pushing people towards? Often, it is overcrowded markets, thin profit margins and risky, insecure forms of employment. And not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur.
  4. Given that the picture we found was all about social networks and relationships and local power and politics we need to get governance and sociology into work on growth and private sector development.
  5. There’s a case for thinking about the scope for challenging exploitation and brokering stronger collective action to improve pay and working conditions. This is difficult, especially in conflicts (and harder than doing training) and difficultly political – but in line with recent thinking about doing development differently [^].

I think of it as the ‘workers of the world unite’ policy agenda.