Intermediating the Internet Economy in Digital Livelihoods Provision for
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.
Digital Skills Training and the Systematic Exclusion of Refugees in
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.
Bridging Ethical Divides in Digital Refugee Livelihoods
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
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.
Under shifting macro-economic conditions, namely rising energy imports, a reorientation of Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping, and the expansive Belt and Road Initiative, China–United Arab Emirates and Saudi relations are burgeoning. Having concluded comprehensive strategic partnerships encompassing political, military, energy and security dimensions, these relations are well matched, especially in areas such as fintech, smart city technology, artificial intelligence and COVID-19 vaccine cooperation. However, conditioned by Beijing’s reticence over Middle East entanglements and prioritisation of the Indo-Pacific region, US policy priorities and aversion to over-dependence, this chapter finds that whilst bilateral relations are vital, they remain somewhat uncertain.
The conclusion answers the book’s guiding research questions. It covers a number of conceptual bases including threat perception, modified decision making, absent effective regional security structures, as well as transitions within and away from riyal politik and economic statecraft. The chapter also dwells on the role of oil policy and other strategic economic relations in the conduct of Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) foreign policy and international relations, such as expatriate labour opportunities, labour remittances and the Hajj. The chapter discusses new or revitalised trade patterns generally associated with the Saudi and UAE Visions strategies, alongside shifts in US policy. Alliance patterns, hegemony, dependency, leverage, patron–client relations, hedging and political legitimacy are analysed within this new context.
Recent conflicts such as the Eritrean–Ethiopian War of 1998–2000, with a final peace agreed only in 2018 with significant Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) economic and diplomatic support, and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen from 2015, have catalysed Saudi and UAE engagement. The chapter also describes how the Arab uprisings as well as the Qatar Crisis involving Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other, have further incentivised Gulf Cooperation Council state competition in the Horn of Africa, especially in states undergoing transition such as Sudan and Somalia. The chapter finds that Tehran does not generally have the economic resources to compete. However, the death knell for its influence in the Horn has been a combination of pragmatic local political elites seeking to balance their interests, a lack of local Shia affiliation, and Saudi Arabia’s golden opportunity to extend its alliances in the Horn in 2016, buttressed by upfront economic and energy payments.
Saudi and United Arab Emirates relations with India and Pakistan, and Asia more widely, are becoming increasingly complex and dynamic as Saudi Arabia shifts focus from Islamic to economic credentials and as these Gulf Cooperation Council states continue to implement their Visions strategies. Whilst relations with India and Pakistan are durable, a number of potential hurdles remain. This chapter argues that Saudi–India relations and Saudi–Pakistani relations reached a possible inversion point in the 2015–20 period after Pakistan proved unreliable in sending troops to support the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and indirectly criticised Saudi Arabia over its policy on Kashmir. As a major and growing economy which has been able to establish joint ventures and avoid entanglements in the Middle East, and with significant military-to-military relations, India adds significant value for these states. The chapter concludes with further remarks concerning the conceptualisation of shifts and transitions taking place bilaterally and inter-regionally between South and West Asia.