Freelancing in the developing world : De-bunking the myth

By: Pritha Singh, 1/02/2013

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For long, it has been believed that ‘independent work’ or ‘freelancing’, in common parlance – is a phenomenon, concentrated in, if not exclusive to, the developed world. The notion of an independent worker negotiating contractual terms, working on several projects at once and acting as a ‘business unit’ by himself / herself,  is traditionally associated with countries with developed economies, largely on account of stable legal systems that allow enforcing such contracts and professional ‘rule-based’ conduct that is much more a characteristic of the western world.

But is this notion really correct? Has the equation changed over the last two decades with the emergence of economic powerhouses like India and China on the other side of the Atlantic? Or has it always been this way, and no one has ever noticed?

Some facts - Indians form the second largest pool of talent, after US, on the global freelancing platform elance.com? Elance has ~3.5 lac registered freelancers from India, with around 45% of them belonging to the IT industry, closely followed by industries like creatives at 35% and operations at 20%.. Number 3 spot on this list is occupied by Pakistan and Number 4 by Philippines – both developing nations in their own accord.

Does this come as a surprise? Well, it should not. Entrepreneurship or independent work has long been the staple profession for us Indians in the absence of a multinational culture, which most would agree, has only emerged strongly in the last 2 decades. Millions of kirana store owners, lawyers running their legal practices, doctors running their clinics, architects, tax consultants, chartered accountants et al will resoundingly claim that they have never been “employed” by an organization – they’ve also provided their services for a fee, and continue to do so.

What has however begun to change recently is the ambit of professions or skills that fall into the fold of independent work. Starting with management consulting, the list of professions that are now ‘fee-based’ now includes marketing consultants, advocacy specialists, financial analysts, sales acceleration experts – the list goes on, and is growing. This represents a new dynamic in the field of freelancing. As corporations become more discerning about every penny spent, as professional remunerations become more and more tied to ‘output’ rather than ‘input’, freelancing will become the de facto choice for flexible, performance-linked compensations. The other force driving this change is also the felt need by professionals to build a portfolio of work across organizations to gain maximum experience from multiple assignments.

We stand today at an inflection point. As India slowly starts coming to grip with a ‘normal’ economic trajectory, and organizations realize that riding on the wave will not take them very far – freelancing will gain precedence. Interesting times lie ahead.

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