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02 Oct 2012

Jobs for Development? Reading the WDR 2013 from a Skills Perspective

By Simon McGrath, University of Nottingham.

The 2013 World Development Report from the World Bank makes a powerful argument that jobs need to be brought to the heart of the development debate.  In this blog, I want to focus in particularly on the Report’s treatment of the relationship between jobs, skills and development. Whilst coming from a different ideological and disciplinary space than the authors of the Report, I want to be supportive of their argument but try to push it further in certain directions.

I strongly recommend reading this WDR, as with its predecessors, both for its strengths and weaknesses.  However, here I want to respond to four of its propositions:

  1. Jobs are important for economic and social development;
  2. Some jobs are better than others in contributing to development;
  3. Skills are part of the story but we should remember that jobs create skills as much as skills create jobs; and
  4. A jobs focus needs to be part of thinking about development.

Let me take these in turn.

First, the identification of the importance of jobs is something I really welcome.  For a long time, one of my frustrations with the MDG-EFA orthodoxy has been its lack of a notion of what people actually do to get out of poverty, in spite of the target of MDG1.  Increasingly, too this has been one of my concerns about the rise of the human development and capabilities approach as an alternative account for development.

The Report is welcome too in moving beyond a narrow economistic view of development and the role of jobs therein.  However, I do want to go beyond even a broader reading by economists.  As I have written elsewhere (McGrath 2012), work and jobs are not the same thing. Indeed, Guy Standing argues that: “Work must be rescued from jobs and labour.  All forms of work should be treated with equal respect …” (Standing 2011: 160).  As both he and I argue, economists’ understanding of work is too narrowly focused on what counts in national statistics and, thus ignores much work that is reproductive of society. The definition of jobs comes with a strong gender bias as a result.

Whilst the Report does talk about issues such as social cohesion, it is not strong on this analysis and is far from offering a strong social justice reading of the kind offered by Standing.  Indeed, his absence from the WDR’s references appears quit telling.

Second, this all means that the Report’s notion of some jobs as being more pro-development than others is useful, but primarily as a stepping stone towards an evaluation of the potential relationship between more radical views of both jobs (or, rather, work) and development.

Third, the Report is, of course, correct in seeking a balance between the effects of pre-employment and workplace learning, and in cautioning against excessively supply-side solutions. There is nothing controversial in academic or policy circles about these points, even though the forthcoming UNESCO World TVET Report (UNESCO 2012) acknowledges that policies may not always reflect the orthodoxy.  Nonetheless, the stress on the importance of learning in workplaces usefully complements UNESCO’s arguments in this regard.  However, reinforcing my point about social justice above, the WDR is less strong on inequalities of access to vocational learning, whether before or during employment.

Moreover, the narrow range of literature on skills utilised by the WDR leaves it poorly equipped to link skills back to a broad development agenda.  Yet there is a long tradition of seeing vocational learning as promoting broader human development, as I have noted elsewhere (McGrath 2012).

Fourth, that I support the WDR’s call to bring jobs into the development debate is clear from my comments above, albeit I want to push beyond the Bank’s position. Indeed, I want to reiterate my argument that both learning and work are central to being human and their cultivation should be brought more centrally to both theoretical and policy debates.

Though not posed by the WDR, reading it leaves me with the following question: how do we bring education, skills and work together in a post 2015 agenda?  This is the challenge for my work but also one, hopefully, that resonates with other NORRAG members.

Simon McGrath is Professor of International Education and Development, University of Nottingham, and Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Educational Development. Email:


McGrath, S. 2012. Vocational Education and Training for Development: a Policy in Need of a Theory?  International Journal of Educational Development 32, 5, 623-631. (pre-press version freely available here)

Standing, G. 2011. The Precariat. Bloomsbury, London.

UNESCO 2012. World TVET Report (in press)

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