A schoolgirl participates in a lesson in Kilifi, approximately 50 kilomtres north-east of Mombasa on June 23, 2010, where an initiative called 'Moving the Goalspost', MTG, has sponsored female students from the Kilifi district where drop-out rates due to early marriages, teen pregnancy and a traditional bias towards educating male siblings over female, are high. Using the sport of football to recruit pre and teen-aged girls out of school, MTG has managed to maintain hundreds of girls in school whom it also recruits into its all-female soccer teams to compete at district level tournaments that has been populalrly embraced by the local community and changed perceptions on the value of the girl-child. Current estimates by UNICEF place the number of out-of-school children at 93 million the majority of these being girls, and almost 80 per cent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. AFP PHOTO / Tony KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Schoolgirls in Kilifi, north-east of Mombasa, take part in a 2010 programme to reduce drop-out rates because of early marriages, teenage pregnancy and a preference for educating boys © AFP

The whirlwind that automation will wreak on emerging economies is only now being understood. The replacement of workers by machines threatens two-thirds of jobs in the developing world, according to the United Nations. It will eradicate many of the low-skilled jobs that have already been shed or offshored in richer countries, so the impact will be greater.

Ethiopia is judged the most vulnerable country, where 85 per cent of existing jobs are predicted to disappear. As machines master tasks that have previously confounded them — from sewing garments to weeding vegetables — the impact could be devastating across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where millions of semi-skilled workers stitch fabrics, drive or work the land for a living.

The social consequences of this shock to the developing world, with its fast-growing young population, will be profound. A generation of frustrated and underemployed young people, without a social safety net, could become a destabilising force in already fragile states.

As always, the only answer is education. Developing countries must prepare their populations for the jobs that will survive the rise of the robots. New areas of employment will be created that we can’t entirely predict — from quantum computing to genomics. Yet however advanced the robots become, jobs that require human empathy cannot be automated. For instance, as life expectancies rise, the developing world will require ever more nurses and healthcare workers, all whom require training.

Automation will have the greatest impact in countries that can least cope. Education standards are so poor in much of the developing world that automation could create a perfect storm where low-skill jobs disappear and workers lack the expertise for the roles that replace them.

More than 61m children around the world still do not attend primary school (sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of exclusion with more than a fifth of children between the ages of 6-11 out of school). Three-quarters of Indian 10-year-olds have not mastered simple division sums. The rote-learning culture, common in classrooms in developing countries, is failing to teach basic skills, let alone the creativity and critical thinking required for the jobs of the future.

Education cannot improve without well-trained and well-respected teachers. In Uganda, however, only one in five elementary schoolteachers meets the minimum standard of proficiency in maths. In Kenyan state schools teachers are absent almost half the time. Often they are away from the classroom working second jobs to supplement their teaching salary. With the notable exception of China, teaching remains a low-status profession in much of the developing world. This creates a vicious cycle where it is difficult to persuade the brightest to consider it as a career, and standards remain low.

To cope with automation, these strained education systems urgently require funding. More teachers need to be employed, trained and retrained as the jobs market changes. Curriculums need to be revised to include coding, foreign languages and soft skills. But the international community is not showing anything like the commitment required for the scale of the crisis. Education, though it is essential for solving all other global problems, is perversely treated as a second-tier goal — something to be prioritised once poverty has been eradicated and healthcare improved.

Education aid is lower now than it was in 2009 — and is not concentrated on those countries most in need. Sub-Saharan Africa, home to half the world’s out-of-school children, receives less than half the aid it did in 2002. To ensure sustained funding we must demand that G7 countries enshrine in law their commitment to education aid — just as the UK has done with its spending on international development.

Governments know that they don’t have the resources to match the scale of the task. The private and voluntary sectors should be working with the state to strengthen public education. Whether they provide financial assistance, technical support, or work in public-private partnerships, collaborations can help bring a quality education for those to whom it has been denied.

In Uganda, the non-profit organisation Building Tomorrow funds, builds and is given the freedom to operate schools while the Ugandan government pays the teachers’ salaries. In India, the Akanksha Foundation runs successful schools in the poorer parts of Mumbai, partially funded by the state, which aim to challenge the limited expectations faced by low-income communities in mainstream government schools.

If we are to find jobs for the more than 1bn young people who will join the global workforce over the next decade, then we require an education revolution. Given that the crisis will hit developing economies within the next two decades, time is running out. Surviving the rise of the robots will require all the efforts of the public, private and voluntary sectors in education — even where this is politically uncomfortable for governments. Most importantly, it will require leaders in the developing world to prioritise education over the other pressing demands on their treasuries.

Developed world leaders, especially the G7, must understand that there is only a short time in which the destructive impact of automation on the poorest countries can be avoided. If their financial commitments are not forthcoming, they will feel the effects of increased instability and migration on their borders

Amid this bleak picture, we should remember that rapid change and improvement is possible in education. Fifty years ago, South Korea was a poor country with high levels of illiteracy. Within a few generations, it became a wealthy country because it built one of the best education systems in the world. Its far-sighted political leaders understood what the world seems to have forgotten: there is no route out of poverty without investment in education.

Sunny Varkey is chairman of GEMS Education and the Varkey Foundation

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