Global Development Institute Blog

Gale holds a PhD in International Development Policy and Management from GDI. After completing a British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellowship with us, she joined Queen Mary University of London as a Lecturer in Economic Geography.

Why did you choose GDI for your PhD?

After earning my Bachelor’s at the University of Michigan in Environmental Science and Policy, I went to work at the environment programme at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. I worked on international issues, including trade and finance, which opened a whole new world for me, and lead to an interest in globalisation and developing countries. I did my Master’s of Public Policy also at the University of Michigan in International Economic Policy, and decided that I wanted to continue to work in international contexts.

In 2003 I went to work at an inter-governmental organisation called the South Centre, in Geneva, Switzerland. South Centre is made up of developing country governments, created as a think tank to promote their interests and pro-poor development. Most of the work during my three years there focused on assisting developing countries in their negotiations in the World Trade Organisation, working one-on-one with delegates.

Eventually, I wanted to be able to write my own papers on development issues and decided to pursue research, and came to do a PhD at the Global Development Institute. I chose GDI (then IDPM) for many reasons, but one was because it was interdisciplinary, housed in the School of Environment, Education and Development: although I wanted to focus on developing countries and trade issues, I was also interested in global environmental justice. GDI was able to marry all of those interests, though the PhD took a slightly different turn in the end.

My PhD was followed by two lectureships and I have just finished a three-year British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at GDI.

What did you enjoy most about GDI?

There is a real intensity, in a good way – a vibrancy. Everyone is doing amazing work and you can just feel it in the air. The staff are seriously contributing to important research and to engaging with whoever out there needs to critically think about development.

What has your research focused on?

I research labour governance in the electronics industry global production network. My case studies focused on Malaysia and China. I’m particularly interested in the changing power dynamics between firms in the industry: the brands that outsource production and the large suppliers that actually do the production. I try to find out what working conditions are like in the factories and what firms, trade unions, NGOs and governments do to try to improve working conditions.

Why is this an important area of research?

Quite simply: there is a problem but there aren’t effective solutions. It’s surprising to me how little attention the electronics industry gets around labour conditions, as opposed to agriculture and textiles, for example. We have a gap in our understanding that I try to contribute to, and doing so qualitatively, being out there conducting interviews, means that I have been able to get a different understanding of these problems.

How has your research addressed global inequalities?

The idea of rich versus poor countries is clearly a structural problem and global outsourcing of work is part of that structure. In the electronics industry, companies in “rich” countries, like Apple, do the high value added, high paid work, including designing, marketing, innovating, and engineering, sitting in very nice offices in Silicon Valley. But they outsource all of the work that involves paying a lot of people, having a factory, and managing health and safety risks, to “poor” countries – passing all of that responsibility and risk onto developing countries. Some would argue that this kind of outsourcing creates jobs, but what is more important is the type of jobs it creates: low-wage jobs with poor working conditions. Unfortunately, such structures are rigid and it is very difficult to change them. Countries like Malaysia, which have been receiving these types of outsourced jobs in the electronics industry since the 70s, continue to remain stuck in an employment pattern of low-wage jobs and poor working conditions.

But this is just one example of inequality in one production network. To put it crudely: rich companies are getting rich off the back of poor workers in poor countries. My research tries to better understand the context and solutions to help lower income countries and their workers get unstuck.

What are some of those solutions?

One thing that countries can do for better labour governance is enforce laws and have stronger laws, around working hours, chemical exposures, wages, to name just three examples. But these are hard for countries to implement when they are trying to stay competitive by being low-cost.

Or the workers, trade unions and NGOs can try to improve the situation by applying more pressure on both governments and companies. Historically we know that the wins through campaigns like these are low, but in the countries where we see most of the problems, civil society organisations, trade unions and workers are repressed and weak, again because governments want to stay low-cost.

There needs to be a break in the structure. Some might argue that could come about through global worker solidarity or binding global rules, but how realistic such solutions are is questionable. So there is a need for ongoing research in these areas.

How has your University of Manchester degree prepared you for your career?

GDI has always been very supportive of going out there, into the field, to really understand the problems on the ground in a comprehensive way, and I think that was an important message to hear as a PhD student.

I also owe a lot to PhD supervision. The level and quality of supervision really matters to what you get out of your PhD. In addition to doing great research, the PhD is when you learn all the other components of being an academic, and the supervisors are key in driving that formation: getting journal articles out during your PhD, learning to manage time pressures and stress, taking advantage of guest lecture opportunities available to PhDs, and of course, applying for funding and grants. The support of the academics at GDI – their comments, feedback, just their availability to help – were crucial to me securing my postdoctoral position.

What advice would you give yourself ten years ago?

I was just starting my PhD, and I would say: learn to manage stress. No one is standing still at GDI and you’ll be pulled along on this wave, but it’s a great wave so you won’t want to get off. At times however, it will get tiring, so lower the expectations you have for yourself every now and then, take holidays, go for a jog, and step away from your work sometimes!

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.