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CPAID Researcher Spotlight

Dr Laura Mann

Assistant Professor at LSE's Department of International Development

Laura Mann

With the CPAID team spanning the globe, our spotlight series celebrates the researchers who make our work unique, seeking to understand a little more about their research, motivations and backstory.

In this CPAID spotlight, we speak to CPAID Investigator Dr Laura Mann about her research.

Please tell us a little about yourself

I am a British-American sociologist interested in the history of development and technological change within the global economy. Outside of academia, I love reading great novels, hanging out with friends and going for runs with my dog, Minsky.

Please tell us about your current work

I am currently working on two projects. First, a project tracking the digitisation of agriculture in two valleys, California’s Central Valley and Kenya’s Rift Valley. My colleagues and I want to understand how digitisation and platformisation are reconfiguring economic value chains and control over agricultural science. My second project is an ongoing book project looking at the evolution of Sudanese higher education. I conducted fieldwork in Sudan from 2008-2010 among graduates, university administrators and employers, but I am now digging deeper into the intellectual history of higher education policy itself. I want to understand how policymakers in different eras thought about the social and economic roles of education, and how domestic debates over higher education interacted with global trends and pressures from the World Bank and/or donor governments.  

Can you share any interesting results you’ve learned from your work?

The global economy is constantly changing, and so each country must forge its own developmental path. In a recent paper published in the European Journal of Development Research, my co-author Jana Kleibert examined the evolution of the global outsourcing industry across three countries that joined the sector at different times, India, the Philippines and Kenya. We show how Indian firms and workers were able to benefit from the initial ‘unbundling’ of production from high income countries. However, to maintain their competitiveness amidst rising wages and accelerating client demands, Indian firms have themselves further reconfigured production. Typically, large contracts sourced from high value clients are broken down, rationalised and distributed to diffuse delivery networks around the world. These firms are able to identify and capture the highest value components while subcontracting less lucrative components to others. As a sector defined by such constant restructuring, it becomes harder and harder for firms in new destinations like Kenya to replicate the same success and move out of their disadvantaged positions within the chain. I am fascinated by this constant movement and restructuring.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I hope that my research makes people more critical of the opportunities and developmental dangers of digitisation, and to think more strategically about how digital technologies might be used for structural transformation. 

Final question, do you have a memorable travelling story? 

One of my favourite research memories was visiting Mombasa’s tea auction with colleagues from the University of Nairobi. It was amazing to observe the ‘market’ for tea come together, the lists of factories representing farmers from across East Africa, and the frenetic back and forth call between the auctioneer and buyers from all over the world. In that moment, I saw first-hand how information structures ‘the market,’ and how communication practices can determine the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people. It was probably the most profound research experience of my life.