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Sourcing Change: Digital Work Building Bridges to Professional Life
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Sheba Achieng Otieno and her siblings were raised by a single mother in a house made of sheet metal in one of Nairobi’s massive urban slums. Sheba has one wish: to create a better life for her and her siblings than the one they were born into.

Sabun Ou dreams of becoming a lawyer and helping to end corruption in Cambodia. Born into a farming family and living with a physical disability, Sabun wants a life that takes him beyond his rural childhood and the constant teasing he received.

Syna Haung’s family makes baskets. Her father ascends the mountains of Cambodia’s Kampot Province three times a week to gather bamboo, which her mother weaves into baskets and sells, earning just enough to subsist on day by day. Syna studies marketing at university now and plans to start her own company.

These three young, motivated, and determined people are our colleagues. We work together at Digital Divide Data (DDD), a digital services company that spans three continents, Asia, Africa, and North America. Our company’s purpose is to offer these talented youth a chance to connect to the global economy, to explore their personal and professional interests, to join a community of other young professionals, and to achieve their dream of living fulfilling and rewarding lives.

In the United States we would call Sheba, Sabun, and Syna young professionals, noting that they are the first generation in their families to go to college. However, the international development community is more likely to see them as part of the “youth bulge”—that is, the largest generation with the lowest employment rate the developing world has ever seen.

Through our work in Southeast Asia and East Africa, we see firsthand the critical global development challenge presented by youth unemployment. Half of today’s world population is under 25 years of age; 90 percent of these young people live in poor countries and about 88 million do not have work. Many are growing up in slums and rural areas where there are very few jobs, and most jobs that exist are in the informal sector. According to the International Labor Organization, another 152 million youth subsist on jobs that offer no real path out of poverty. Policymakers, governments, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are addressing the problem because a sizable youth cohort can quickly become a source of instability if youth unemployment is not addressed. Equally important is the fact that so many young people are missing the opportunity work provides for personal development and for having a sense of purpose at a critical time in their lives.

Sheba, Sabun, Syna, and our other young colleagues in Cambodia, Laos, and Kenya have shown us that one solution to these challenges is impact sourcing, which is a way to leverage a $300 billion industry known as business process outsourcing (BPO) to create jobs and opportunity. As co-founders of Digital Divide Data, one of the pioneers of impact sourcing, we’ve seen how a private sector approach to development is succeeding where international aid often fails.

We are tremendously excited by the potential of impact sourcing to build young people’s knowledge and skills and promote their long-term success, to develop talent in growing economies, and to drive economic growth. Yet we know that jobs alone are not enough. Impact sourcing can create large-scale opportunity for youth from poor families to develop themselves through education and employment, thus enabling them to build careers and lives that far surpass their childhood experiences of day-to-day survival. We envision a world in which members of the youth bulge can thrive and lead and create a better future for themselves, their families, and our planet.

The BPO industry, which involves contracting business functions out to third-party service providers, can serve as a catalyst for the young generation. Although some see it as an industry that chases low-cost labor, the sector employs several million people worldwide, especially in countries such as India, the Philippines, and China. In India alone, the BPO industry has grown from 1.2 percent of gross domestic product in 1998 to 6.4 percent in 2011. In the...

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