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Labor Day Week: Labour Day Reflections: The undervaluing of lives and labor in the Global South by Zenda Ofir

Zenda Ofir
Zenda Ofir

I am Zenda Ofir, South African scientist and evaluator. I work from local to global level with a special focus on Africa and Asia. 

Do you know that every cup of coffee you drink in your favorite chain of US coffee shops pushes a coffee farmer in the Global South deeper into poverty and despair? Coffee farmers do not earn a living wage; many do not even break even. The ratio between what the farmer was paid and what the companies sold their coffee for in the 1970s was 1:3; today, it is up to 1:20.

And the workers who make your jeans and T-shirts? Studies show that workers for some clothing supply chains controlled by multinationals in the Global North (the economically rich countries) are being paid only half of what is needed to live a decent life.

Of the 60 million garment industry workers worldwide, 80 percent are women. More than two billion people work in the informal economy, precariously surviving from one day to the next. And children? Nearly 170 million are child laborers.

Almost all such workers are in the Global South – that part of the world previously patronizingly called the “Third World” or “developing countries”. It includes the roughly 6 billion people in the 140 low-income (per capita) economies that share similar economic and/or geopolitical positions in the global capitalist system – a history of colonization and exploitation, as well as common strategic interests that play out on global platforms such as the “G77+China”

Labor is the main and often sole asset of the poor. If wages show the value of labor, workers in the Global South are greatly undervalued and unfairly treated despite the efforts of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to create “decent work for all”, as demanded in the Agenda 2030 with its Sustainable Development Goals.

This situation is systemic and largely engineered. It is the result of poverty which means lack of choice, of local and international exploitation and corruption, of often instigated wars and ecological breakdown. The Global North-driven neoliberal agenda has forced impoverished countries to open up too early to imports and exploitative foreign direct investment, undermining national innovation and development. As a result, transnational corporations have built their spectacular profits and growth on the precarious labor conditions of workers far away. Indeed, COVID-19 has laid bare the global value chains through which such firms put pressure on price and supply along their entire length.

Hot Tip: We are all interconnected, and economically rich (per capita) countries contribute significantly to the undervaluing of other people’s lives and labor. If you care about racism and exploitation in your own country, you should also care about the same elsewhere – and about your country’s role in perpetuating these.

Lessons to internalize (more detailed version: https://zendaofir.com): No evaluation of labor issues is simple. With Blue Marble Evaluation principles as backdrop, the following offers food for thought:   

  • Nuanced assessments are essential – considering interdependencies, tensions between value systems and practical realities, and the global political economy that determines the destiny of nations.  
  • Systems matter, and life’s realities can trump idealistic values.
  • Power asymmetries are everywhere, and should be part of every evaluation. 
  • The ‘global’ really does influence the ‘local’ – and sometimes the other way around.  

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Labor Day Week in Evaluation. The contributions this week explore the concept of labor from different perspective and in relation to evaluation. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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