In the advent of the coronavirus pandemic and the push to digital work, this op-ed argues that the emerging digital economy can be vital for enabling refugee women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to overcome existing livelihood barriers. Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, over 6.5 million Syrian refugees have been registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) globally. Neighbouring countries across the MENA region continue to carry the largest share of the burden. Across the region, refugees live on the margins, in camps, as well as urban and peri-urban communities, and other informal settlements. Existing gender disparities coupled with other social and logistical barriers, as well as restrictive legal and economic structures, exacerbate livelihood challenges for refugee women in MENA. Research demonstrates that the digital economy, particularly crowd and ‘on-demand’ work, could provide opportunities that would enable women refugees to overcome these barriers to work. As it stands, however, the digital economy is still in its infancy, especially in host countries in MENA, and it is still fraught with challenges, including barriers to entry, employee protections and the lack of guarantees to decent work, especially for vulnerable and marginalised communities. We therefore argue that there is a need to direct efforts to maximise the benefits that the digital economy could offer, especially to refugee women – a need that has become even more pertinent since the coronavirus pandemic.
The global spread of online work opportunities has inspired a new generation of market-based aid that connects forcibly displaced people to a transnational internet economy. Because refugees face barriers to making a livelihood online, aid organisations and private enterprises support them by building bridges across digital divides, connectivity problems or skill gaps. They thereby become intermediaries and brokers that facilitate connections between refugees and online income opportunities, which often lack decent working conditions and adequate protections. Because digital livelihood initiatives lack the power to reshape these conditions and the value of work in the internet economy, they fail to become mediators with a transformative impact. The result is that the internet economy reshapes livelihoods provision far more than aid can reshape its disempowering effects, despite successes in driving forward refugees’ digital inclusion. Based on more than three years of research including interviews, field visits and surveys, this article foregrounds the current risks that result from the inclusion of refugees into precarious forms of online gig work. To ensure a decent future of work for refugees in the internet economy, the current push for digital livelihoods will require an equally strong push for stronger protections, inclusive regulations and rights.
A decade into the Syrian war, Lebanon remains the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita worldwide, limiting their work to three sectors of the economy. Most of the employed refugees have therefore been active in the informal market under indecent and insecure working conditions. One solution currently being promoted by humanitarian and development organisations and the private sector is that digital work in web-based labour markets can provide an alternative that circumvents these local restrictions, offering refugees a way to make a livelihood online. This field report contests this assumption, based on analysis of the impact and experience of a digital skills training programme that reached some 3000 beneficiaries by 2021. The report critically examines how a context of regulatory restriction and economic crisis in Lebanon undermines the feasibility of digital refugee livelihoods, thereby offering a critique of the idea that web-based income opportunities transcend local markets, policies and regulations. Due to discriminatory policies, ICT-related exclusion, and financial exclusion, the programme’s objective shifted from online work to local work. Ironically, most of those graduates who found work did so in the local informal labour market once more, having failed to secure any form of sustainable online income opportunity.
This op-ed outlines key issues humanitarians should consider when assessing their ‘digital responsibility’ to foster digital refugee livelihoods. This includes in particular the need to develop robust monitoring and evaluation frameworks of outcomes of digital livelihoods trainings for refugees – and spaces for critical engagement with the results of such evaluations, including stopping digital livelihoods programming when risks outweigh benefits. It argues that ethical humanitarian engagement in technology must include the development of coherent, contextualised sets of norms and frameworks for responsibility and protection in the digital sphere, including those that address humanitarian efforts to assist refugees to enter the digital economy.
Humanitarian actors touting financial inclusion posit that access to financial services builds refugees’ resilience and self-reliance. They claim that new digital financial tools create more efficient and dignified pathways for humanitarian assistance and enable refugees to better manage their savings and invest in livelihoods, especially during protracted displacement. Our in-depth, repeat interviews with refugees in Kenya and Jordan refute this narrative. Instead, self-reliance was hindered primarily by refugees’ lack of foundational rights to move and work. Financial services had limited ability to support livelihoods in the absence of those rights. The digital financial services offered to refugees under the banner of ‘financial inclusion’ were not mainstream services designed to empower and connect. Instead, they were segregated, second-class offerings meant to further isolate and limit refugee transactions in line with broader political desires to encamp and exclude them. The article raises questions about the circumstances in which humanitarian funding ought to fund financial service interventions and what those interventions are capable of achieving.
The current scale and duration of displacement prompts renewed urgency about livelihoods prospects for displaced people and the role of humanitarian organisations in fostering them. This special issue focuses on how aid organisations, together with the private sector and other actors, have worked to include refugees in new forms of online work within the web-based digital economy. Building on comparative analysis and a comprehensive review of the field of digital livelihoods among the forcibly displaced, in this introductory article we argue that including refugees in this digital economy is currently neither a sustainable form of humanitarian relief nor is it a development solution that provides large-scale decent work. We show how digital livelihoods approaches have gained a special footing in the middle ground between short-term economic relief and long-term development. Indeed, digital economies seemingly offer a variety of ‘quick-fix’ solutions at the transition from humanitarian emergency towards long-term development efforts. While digital economies harbour significant potential, this cannot be fully realised unless current efforts to include refugees in digital economies are complemented by efforts to address digital divides, uphold refugees’ rights, and ensure more decent working conditions.
Discourses around the so-called digital economy are increasingly more present in contexts of forced displacement, with digital inclusion of refugees being framed by humanitarian agencies as a fundamental human right and an essential tool to promote access to income and skills development. While digital work can certainly bring about positive changes in forced migration settings, imaginaries around the role of the digital in refugees’ economic lives reflect a broader neoliberal project that envisions a retreat of the welfare state and that places on refugees the responsibility to integrate. This article draws on spatial imaginaries frameworks to advance the theoretical understanding of power differentials that are embodied in the use of technologies to promote refugee livelihoods. A combination of interviews, participant and non-participant observations was used to examine the perspectives of Venezuelan refugee women and humanitarian actors in the context of a digital work initiative in the city of Boa Vista, Brazil. The analysis reveals a mismatch between the imaginaries underpinning digital work opportunities and the expectations and plans of the refugee women themselves about the use of ICTs and engagement in digital forms of employability. Such disconnect can reinforce inequalities for refugee’s agency in the digital economy.
This forum brings together a diverse group of scholars from political geography, international relations, critical organisation studies, global development, international studies and political sociology to explore the debates and dynamics of celebrity engagement with development and humanitarianism. The contributions here come from a series of roundtables organised in 2021, including one at the 6th World Conference on Humanitarian Studies of the International Humanitarian Studies Association in Paris that discussed the findings and insights of the book Batman Saves the Congo: How Celebrities Disrupt the Politics of Development (University of Minnesota Press, 2021).