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Virtual personal assistants: No imperialism here

Yesterday, I noted that hiring virtual personal assistant (VPAs) from India and other developing countries was becoming increasingly popular in Western countries. I asked whether employing a VPA in India to respond to your every whim is a neo-imperial, exploitative phenomenon, or whether it is just a new and novel way for trade to give us what we want, while providing entrepreneurs in emerging markets with ways to expand their businesses.

Sunder P., the director of GetFriday, one of the best-known providers of VPAs, wrote in with a response. Exploitative and neo-imperial? Resoundingly not, says Sunder P. Here's what he had to say:

In the scenario of a service economy, I think Indians are more imperialistic than the Westerners, because we can't do without our nannies, cooks, house-maids and all the paraphernalia. Westerners in general are not used to such comforts and hence are more likely to feel pangs of guilt. The other factor triggering it could be that Indians workers are generally hardworking, polite and a little docile. They are not used to frequent appreciation and endorsement which is common with Westerners. Hence when they get genuine appreciation from clients, they try their best to reciprocate and may sometimes end up doing more than they should. So you end up making the client feel guilty with all the attention rather than good. […]

Does such a service pamper your ego and soul? Yes, it would to some extent and I think it should. But so would a salon, a spa, a concierge service, an exclusive premium credit card do that to your ego. Does the client or the person rendering the service feel guilty about it? I guess not.

The only things we constantly ask ourselves whenever we get any weird requests are 1) Is it unethical? 2) Is it illegal? 3) Is it derogatory to our staff? If the answer is NO, then we take them on. If YES, then we politely decline. […]

Business apart, the positive aspect of this story for us has been that we have been able to provide employment to more than 100 people from B-cities (smaller cities) in India after training them to handle international clients. That translates to 100 success stories of small town people getting groomed to take on the global market. And they are immensely proud of what they do and they would be deeply offended if someone remarked that they are triggering imperialistic fantasies. Hence, I am firmly of the opinion that it is a genuine win-win situation for both sides, notwithstanding the fear and paranoia about loss of jobs in the West. We are staring at a world where work will flow to places that have the right talent to get quality work done at the most economical prices.

This sounds pretty convincing. I have to admit, though, the name "GetFriday" does have an imperial-sounding, Robinson Crusoe kind of ring to it.

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Putin tries to run up the score

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images

With zero polling stations reporting from zero districts, this blogger is now ready to call this coming Sunday's Russian parliamentary elections for... Vladimir Putin's United Russia party! We specialize in bold predictions here at FP.

United Russia is currently polling at about 64 percent and the Communists are likely the only other party that will pass the 7 percent threshold required for a Duma seat. (If there's a bright spot in all this, it's that suspected murderer Andrei Lugovoi probably won't be elected.) All the same, the virtually guaranteed landslide hasn't stopped the Kremlin from doing nearly everything possible to put down Russia's already weak opposition. Here's a roundup:

  • Dozens of demonstrators including opposition leader Garry Kasparov have been jailed for the past week. 
  • The leader of the liberal Yabloko party in the violent region of Dagestan was assassinated.
  • The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe decided not to attend after they weren't sent visas in time. Putin blamed the U.S. State Department for meddling.
  • The Kremlin reneged on a promise to grant liberal parties a few seats if they refrained from criticism of the government.
  • Bureaucrats and students are reportedly being intimidated by their bosses and professors into voting for United Russia. Workers in some offices are required to sign up 10 others to vote and report their names to their superiors.

If United Russia would overwhelmingly win even a fair contest, what's the point of all this? It's clear that if Putin feels that if he is to remain in power when his constitutionally limited term runs out next year, he not only needs a win, he needs to crush the idea that meaningful opposition even exists. This election could just be setting the stage for a much more significant power grab next year, though it's anybody's guess how this will ultimately play out.

In Russia, they call this type of manipulation "political technology." Right now, the world is watching a master class.