Understanding the Development Implications of Online Outsourcing: A Study of Digital Labour Platforms in Pakistan

Fareesa Malik, Brian Nicholson & Richard Heeks


Online outsourcing involves outsourcing of tasks from clients to workers all over the world via digital platforms like Upwork, Freelancer and Fiverr.  Millions of workers in developing countries are already involved, and governments and donor agencies are starting online outsourcing initiatives that try to offer access to these digital livelihoods to marginalised groups such as unemployed youth and women.  However, little is yet known about these initiatives and, to address that gap, the research reported here undertook case study analysis of online outsourcing projects in Pakistan.

Supported by the sustainable livelihoods framework, the analysis showed a context of politico-economic vulnerability to push unemployed individuals into this field.  Those involved then divided into four groups: sinkers, strugglers, survivors and swimmers.  Many do not succeed but some – more entrepreneurial individuals pulled by the motivation of earnings potential – do, and are able to generate reasonable earnings; for example, enough to fund educational studies.  Contrary to an image of de-institutionalised work, this form of digital labour involves a substantial institutional ecosystem.  This means not just the online platforms but formal interventions from NGOs and other development agencies, and the creation of less formal social relations of support.  These are needed in order to overcome barriers including technical infrastructure, knowledge and skills, and financial systems.

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Educators’ guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What is the rationale for studying online outsourcing in developing countries?  [Section A]
  2. What does current literature have to say about online outsourcing (in developing countries)?  [Section B]
  3. What framework is used to address the research questions?  [Section C]
  4. What research methods did the study use?  [Section D]
  5. What are the main drivers to online outsourcing for marginalised groups in Pakistan?  [Section E1]
  6. What barriers existing to online outsourcing for marginalised groups in Pakistan?  [Section E2]
  7. What is the organisational and institutional context of online outsourcing for marginalised groups in Pakistan?  [Section E3]
  8. What has been the livelihood impact of online outsourcing for marginalised groups in Pakistan?  [Section E4]]


Development questions

  1. Is it really worth significant investment in online outsourcing, or will it always be just a marginal means of creating employment in developing countries?
  2. Does it matter what we call this: online outsourcing; gig work; digital labour?
  3. Are governments justified in providing special funding and programmes to support online outsourcing for marginalised groups?
  4. Does the fact that work comes specifically through platforms have an impact in this case?
  5. Is the work provided by digital platforms better or worse than the alternatives for the trainees in Pakistan?
  6. What other conceptual frameworks might be used to study online outsourcing for marginalised groups?