In Palestine, ‘death’ by a thousand micro jobs

Microwork centred on the internet can allow Palestinians to work from their jail cells, offering them subsistence wages.

A man looks at mobile phones displayed next to the logo of Wataniya Palestine in a shop in Ramallah
Microwork can serve as a "path to job creation for Palestinian youth and women who can become digitally mobile economic actors using relatively basic digital infrastructure" [Reuters]

“I just punched the data into my phone and I’m earning good cash,” the comic depicts one African woman saying to another, speaking American-style English that’s about as realistic as Iraqi Marsh Arabs speaking Moroccan Darija. In the next frame, an Asian-looking man declares: “In just a few months we already have 250 global clients using our data from Africa.”

Welcome to “m2Work”, the latest bright idea pyramid scheme to help Palestinians build a viable economy to ensure Palestinians remain safely in their cages while the occupation continues unabated and the space of Israel/Palestine continues its march towards a neoliberal dystopia.

The idea of “microwork” has recently been adopted by the World Bank through a new project in cooperation with mobile phone maker Nokia called infoDev. It consists of a series of small business tasks that have been broken out of a larger project, including activities such as market research, data input, data verification, translation, graphic design, and even software development. The m2Work project is the latest attempt to help fulfill the Bank’s long-stated goal of eradicating extreme poverty in the developing world.

Specifically, the Bank believes the practice, which “follows a simple concept: numerous people around the world are earning money by completing small digital tasks”, has “vast potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in developing countries, where the key is mobile technology”.

The first generation of “microwork” was based on the use of computers, which limited its adoption by poor people, who do not have access to the expensive hardware and infrastructure. Now it is pushing mobile phone-based structures which would use “technology entrepreneurship” to harness the approximately 5 billion phones in developing countries in the service of providing otherwise scarce paid work to poor women and young people.

For the Bank this is particularly useful because it sees the Arab world more than any other global region as “poorly integrated into the global economy apart from the oil sector. It has the highest unemployment among developing regions, as well as the lowest economic participation by women”. The m2World project thus fits right into the goals of the Bank’s Arab World Initiative, which seeks to foster greater integration through knowledge sharing and collaboration. 

Looking up from the underside of the pyramid

Microwork is being billed as the best way for the world’s poor – “the bottom of the pyramid” – to use information and communications technologies (ICTs) to help alleviate poverty. Of course, the World Bank, IMF and other major international donor and lending organisations always declare their newest ideas to be the key to alleviating or eliminating poverty in the developing world. This new idea coincides with the declaration by the Bank that “extreme poverty could be wiped out by 2030“, a promise that has about as much chance of being met as the Kyoto C02 reduction targets, but which is crucial for the Bank to keep making in order to legitimise its continued policies of structural adjustment, which have in fact increased poverty and inequality across most of the developing world. 

The m2Work project has recently put out a call soliciting proposals for microwork projects from the developing world, and received dozens of proposals from countries such as Armenia, Vietnam and Pakistan, the most interesting of which (as judged by a jury of leading tech industry representatives) are receiving start-up grants to help bring them to fruition. Microwork projects are already operating in Nigeria and Jamaica.

However, the project did not receive any proposals from the Arab world, but this did not stop Bank officials from realising that microwork could prove quite useful in the Occupied Territories, which has a high rate of internet penetration and a “tech-savvy young population” that is proficient in English. Microwork is in fact ideally suited for the labour and broader economic environment operating there. As a March 26 press release announcing the publication of a new study on the potential for microwork explains:

“The digital economy can leap geographic obstacles and bring new employment opportunities to Palestinians in the area of microwork.”

Virtual jobs for a virtual Palestine

In Palestine in particular, microwork can serve as a “path to job creation for Palestinian youth and women who can become digitally mobile economic actors using relatively basic digital infrastructure”. In so doing, it could create tens of thousands of part-time jobs – and an equal number of mobile apps to help foster them – in the next five years.

Palestine is an ideal laboratory for m2Work because of, rather than despite, the occupation. It would allow Palestinians to join the “global knowledge economy” and “innovate, connect and transform” the local economy “through the power of ICTs” without ever having to leave the privacy of their own homes – or more to the point, the Israeli-imposed borders of the towns and villages.

According to a policy specialist at the Bank:

“Microwork’s unique value proposition is that it can be performed anywhere at any time across geographical boundaries, using commonly available computers and internet connections… It is particularly relevant to the Palestinian territories, as it enables local youth and women to access jobs in the global knowledge economy.”

It is “particularly relevant” precisely as Palestinians become increasingly trapped within the cantons of the West Bank and the prison of Gaza. In such a situation, with upwards of 30 percent of Palestinians unemployed according to the most optimistic assessments (a figure that is among the highest in the world), and Israel’s control over the physical Palestinian economy near complete, a virtual, internet-based jobs scheme would seem to offer one area where Palestinians could control their own destinies.

Palestinians could thus capitalise on their well-known “entrepreneurial spirit” which for the last half century was useful only in the diaspora within the realities of life under ongoing occupation, working in areas related to translation, market research, data input and verification, graphic design and even software development through computers and mobile phones without having to leave the confines of the West Bank and Gaza. In this regard, it is not surprising that one of the main backers of the m2Work idea and a member of the jury awarding prizes for the most innovative proposals, Vili Lehdonvirta, is a specialist in “virtual economies”, “online games” and “virtual labour” (one imagines by real workers, at least in this case).

Embracing occupation

Whether or not the microwork programme actually produces actual jobs with sustainable incomes or enables the exploitation of more Palestinian sweatshop labour for the internet age is an open question. Indeed, the feasibility studyon m2Work in Palestine warns that however suited to the realities of Palestine today microwork has many downsides, including wages as low as $1 or $2 an hour with few protections or possibility for advancement. 

“Desperate Palestinians might take up microwork just as they have been compelled to do the macrowork of building the very settlements, cobbling the boots of the very soldiers and farming the stolen agricultural land that dispossesses them.”

To be sure, Palestinians are in a very tough situation with few good options for economic improvements (especially since the Oslo generation has significantly worsened rather than improved their economic situation). And so the study explains:

“The path towards Palestinian statehood and economic development remains challenging. It faces comprehensive restrictions on movement and access, and limited economic growth has led to increasing unemployment, particularly among youth and women. However, the virtual economy could provide an option for mass job creation and income generation. Within the virtual economy microwork appears to be particularly relevant for PT, as it overcomes geographic boundaries to provide earning opportunities for workers with different types of skills and access to relatively basic digital infrastructure.”

The problem is that the potential upside of microwork is as elusive – indeed, illusory – as the benefits of the peace process. As the study admits, the kind of “cloud labour” that is a latest epitome of neoliberal labour regimes “is almost entirely unregulated; workers receive low wages, are given no benefits, have no job security, and risk being dehumanised due to division of labour and mass production”.

Thus, microwork centred on the internet or mobile phones would allow Palestinians literally to work from their jail cells, offering them subsistence wages to engage in work that neatly fits into the parameters of the occupation (in fact, there is little doubt if this takes off, Israeli entrepreneurs will jump into and run the game, as they do with the rest of the Palestinian economy). In so doing, whatever meagre benefits it produces, microwork will provide Israel with even more power to continue with the territorial strangulation of the West Bank and the unending blockade and collective punishment of Gaza.

One could argue that whatever its problematic history of imposing “adjustments” and “reforms” that have increased rather than decreased poverty and inequality and harmed the prospects for development across the Global South, the World Bank must deal with the world as it is, not as it should be. If Israel is penning Palestinians into smaller spaces and the world community is unwilling or unable to put a stop to it, then if the Bank can help Palestinians secure some employment and some income, it is better than the alternative, which is even greater economic hardship.

Such a view, whatever its logic in theory, has in practice – whether by the US, Europe, United Nations or major donor and aid organisations – further enabled the occupation by shifting responsibility off Israel’s shoulders and onto everyone else’s, especially the Palestinians. More specifically, it directly violates the Bank’s core mission of poverty reduction by strengthening an occupation that has immiserated millions of Palestinians and made any sort of development utterly impossible.

Desperate Palestinians might take up microwork just as they have been compelled to do the macrowork of building the very settlements, cobbling the boots of the very soldiers and farming the stolen agricultural land that dispossesses them. But the World Bank’s call for Palestinian “youth and women [to] embrace microwork for jobs and income” is little more than the latest morally bankrupt idea from an international community that has for generations used the rhetoric of jobs, progress and development to mask a reality of ever-greater exploitation of the world’s poor, in Palestine and across the developing world. It would be nice if the World Bank supported the development of an m2Work app, or even just a comic, to expose this reality.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming