Rabih ShibliAmerican University of Beirut

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Sarah KouziAmerican University of Beirut

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Digital Livelihoods Undone
Digital Skills Training and the Systematic Exclusion of Refugees in Lebanon
in Journal of Humanitarian Affairs

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.

Introduction

In May 2013 the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Beirut registered the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide, where nearly one million Syrians fled across the border to escape the civil war that started in 2011. This war exacerbated pre-existing tensions and widened the rift between Lebanon’s political parties that were split between pro and anti-Syrian regime. However, both blocs came to an agreement regarding the governance of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This was reflected in the Government of Lebanon’s (GoL) policy that demonstrates lack of interest in meeting the minimum standards for the treatment of refugees (UNHCR, 2010). The GoL justifies the ‘disinterest-policy’ by referencing the repercussions of the mass influx on the country’s weak economy and its dilapidated infrastructure, on bitter memories associated to the Palestinian refugee crisis (Khawaja, 2011) and their alleged contribution to the Lebanese civil war (1975–90). With no safe place to go back to, Syrian refugees succumb to restrictive Lebanese measures such as the ones limiting their right to work in only three sectors: agriculture, construction and cleaning services. This field report examines the impact and limitations faced by a digital skills training programme that aimed to meet the livelihoods and employment needs of Syrian refugees and Lebanese youth against the backdrop of restrictive policies and multiple evolving crises.

The Digital Skills Training (DST) programme equipped Syrian refugees and Lebanese young adults from marginalised communities with transferable digital skills to enhance employment opportunities while simultaneously promoting their social, educational and economic inclusion. This programme’s implementation was led by the author (2016–21), managed by the co-author (2018–21), and involved professors from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and four local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). However, state censorship distorted a smooth evolution within three years of the programme’s launching by limiting participation exclusively to Lebanese youth. Despite the legal, technical and institutional barriers that prohibit refugees from engaging in online work, and an ongoing economic crisis that limits Lebanon’s capacity to tap into a rapidly growing global digital economy, the programme allowed a considerable number of refugee graduates to secure dignified jobs in the informal local market. This underlines how in this restrictive context, the inclusive promise of the web-based digital labour market fails to materialise and does not provide a feasible source of livelihood provision.

Overview of the Programme

With the support of the World Food Programme (WFP), AUB has grown DST from an on-campus pilot with 100 Syrian participants to a nationwide programme reaching more than 3000 young adults in five centres across Lebanon over six years. According to the WFP, the DST is one of its initial Empowerment in Action (EMPACT) programmes that ‘connects food-insecure youth to the global digital economy’ (WFP, 2020) leveraging on it to ‘build the resilience of urban, displaced, and landless or land-poor households’.1 The location of each centre was selected based on the high concentration of refugees in its surrounding vicinity and ease of access. Outreach stretched for a month utilising the database of UNHCR, WFP, and the Ministry of Social Affairs, referrals by NGOs active in the targeted regions, by the programme graduates and announcements on social media platforms. Eligibility criteria necessitated a valid registration with UNHCR,2 financial need, and a threshold of educational attainment. Accordingly, shortlisted applicants were then invited to attend an information session in each centre and to take a placement test on digital literacy for the final selection of 150 participants.

The DST programme equipped 450 beneficiaries annually, aged 18–35, with at least 50 per cent being women. Each centre offered short cyclical courses starting with essential digital skills as prerequisites to specialised tracks. Each cycle spanned 12 weeks totalling 150 hours of training, whereby students could advance from basic digital skills and beginner English to intermediate level courses. The programme covered a range of topics, from operating a computer to setting up emails and navigating the internet, use of MS Office and Google Apps, as well as introductions to online learning. Intermediate digital skills tracks included front-end web development (Java and WordPress), advanced Excel, SQL, Tableau and Python, tech-enabled construction, and manufacturing skills. Additional support was provided for internships, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and career placement. Courses were delivered four days a week, with two additional open-lab days for student support on life skills and soft skills specifically focusing on building connections to work through individualised career guidance, entrepreneurship training, and an apprenticeship programme. The advanced cycle involved Team Based Learning (TBL), structured from groups of refugees and Lebanese that tackled topics relevant to the local context, developed business plans and pitched their ideas to their classmates and instructors. TBL enabled participants to apply for competitions in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and hackathons that have been exponentially growing in Lebanon.

Partly because Syrians were excluded from many skilled local jobs, the programme’s primary objective was to prepare participants for so-called microwork, which are often repetitive, simple tasks – such as annotating or classifying images – that do not require advanced digital skills and are delivered using a mobile phone, tablet or computer. Accordingly, the first batch of graduates engaged in virtual microwork internships commissioned and managed by WFP’s Innovation Accelerator. Graduates worked on image annotation, sorting and cleaning non-sensitive data for 250 staple food items in 385 shops that were contracted by WFP, and used the information to compare prices, monitor customers’ trends and best-selling items. Payments to interns were wired to e-cards and added to the monthly financial aid that participants receive according to WFP’s database of eligible beneficiaries. However, all attempts to facilitate online work for Syrian refugees beyond this initial incubated pilot failed due to a number of challenges and barriers.

Challenges and Barriers

Exclusion from the Digital Economy and ICT-Related Barriers

Online platform or outsourcing work outside the realms of WFP was not possible due to three interrelated factors. First, many of the prominent digital labour platforms block all IP addresses in Lebanon as a result of international sanctions against financial dealings with Syria and counterterrorism acts. The platform Figure-Eight (later absorbed by Appen),3 which used human labour to train AI machine learning algorithms, expressed readiness to provide DST participants in one training centre with conditional access to micro job platforms once computers were whitelisted. Over a two-week period, the local experts at the centre whitelisted 500 IP addresses; however, the configurations failed as the state-owned telecommunication operator (OGERO)4 continuously alternated IPs. The second hurdle manifested itself in the payment modalities, as refugees were not even allowed to open bank accounts. Local banks interpreted the 2012 US Treasury statement to ‘prohibit deceptive transactions for or on behalf of any person subject to United States sanctions on Syria’ (Domat, 2016) as a risk for dealing with all Syrian refugees. Accordingly, online payments and money transfers were not possible and PayPal, a widespread method for payment by online work platforms, did not operate in Lebanon.

Regulatory Exclusion and Political Pressure

The third factor adding to the ICT-related exclusion was the Lebanese authorities fretting over apparent competition in the job market. This fear was exacerbated following the lone ‘Policy Paper on Syrian Refugees Displacement’5 that was issued by GoL in October 2014, which signalled a looming existential threat to the country’s economy and its social fabric. Among the measures that were identified to ‘alleviate the burdens on the local labour market’6 are the ones that limit refugees’ work permits to daily jobs in agriculture, construction and cleaning services. The Ministry of Labour (MoL) justified the restrictions by claims to reduce competition with the Lebanese in an oversaturated local market, and to avoid offering refugees means for a stable income. Although online work was not mentioned in MoL’s restrictions list since there were no legal frameworks governing the sector, the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) excluded refugees from participating in DST as of 2019. MoSA is empowered to enforce such decisions as GoL’s designee to negotiate humanitarian aid strategies and sign the annual Lebanon Crisis Response Plan,7 prepared in collaboration with the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator. The DST curriculum was shared with MoSA, and together with WFP explained its approach to the Minister and his aides and strongly advocated for the continuation of the programme, including refugees and host Lebanese youth, but this was to no avail. Accordingly, and until 2021, the DST continued with only Lebanese participants being allowed to join the programme.

Isolated Successes: Missed Opportunities

The restrictive regulatory context, economic crises and political pressures fundamentally limited the extent to which cohesion, motivation and confidence could be turned into economically transformative outcomes. The missed opportunities become evident in how some positive impact could not be transformed into livelihoods generation at scale even if isolated successes show that local informal work is the only feasible outcome.

To be sure, in our end-of-programme surveys, 91 per cent of DST participants in 2018–19 reported increased self-confidence as an outcome of the training, often directly linked to newly attained digital skills. A 2017 WFP assessment based on sixteen focus group discussions found that more than 90 per cent participants reported having built lasting friendships with peers of diverse backgrounds and ‘felt social cohesion between Lebanese and Syrians’. The programme also served as a catalyst to continuing education as a result of increased motivation, information shared about training and scholarship opportunities, support with work and academic applications, and through gaining digital and language skills.

Nofa M. and Hussein F. were among the first batch of graduates whose experiences with the programme went beyond merely securing employment to restoring their resilience. Nofa had finished grade 7 in Homs, Syria, before her displacement in 2011. Due to educational, security and financial barriers she failed grade 8 in Lebanon and was not encouraged by her parents to continue education. In an interview, she disclosed, being ‘locked home for two years’ and decided to join the DST to ‘get out of the confinement’. Nofa was eventually appointed a Teacher Assistant in the programme and when asked about her key takeaway, she unhesitatingly answered ‘it’s self-worth’. As for Hussein, the programme provided motivation to ‘transcend depression’; for six years he was among the besieged in Yarmouk, Syria, ‘anticipating death every day’, as he said in one conversation. In 2018 Hussein arrived in Sidon, Lebanon and was unable to continue his Arabic literature university degree due to long years of disrupted learning. The DST centre was a safe and friendly learning environment where he thrived, according to his teachers, despite all his traumatic experiences. Many other participants benefited in similar ways even if they remained excluded from the digital economy.

Digital Livelihoods Undone

Although almost all of surveyed graduates (98 per cent) expressed overall satisfaction with the digital skills curriculum and teaching methods, this did not directly transform into job prospects. The generally restrictive policy and regulatory context, alongside ICT-related exclusion, undermined the potential of digital skills training to benefit refugees’ access to employment. While some benefits clearly emerged from the training, a critical evaluation of the programme shows how a context of discrimination and regulatory exclusion undermines the feasibility of digital refugee livelihoods, thereby offering a critique of the idea that digital upskilling and web-based income opportunities transcend local markets and national contexts.

Indeed, a mere 15 per cent of the refugees reported finding new jobs within six months of graduation despite restrictions. This low percentage may be partly distorted by the limited number of graduates that willingly completed career placement survey forms. Many may have been intimidated to report they were working, amid fears of raids on Syrian labourers carried out by inspectors from MoL (Houssari, 2019). Telephone follow-ups corroborated the fear-avoidance factor and the hesitance to share information that ‘carries unintended risks’, according to one respondent. The survey also showed clear difference between the Lebanese and Syrian refugee participants by access to the labour market. More than 40 per cent of the Lebanese respondents reported finding jobs six months after graduation, but predominantly in the local market. Although legal restrictions did not apply to the Lebanese participants, they still faced technical glitches and banking restrictions in making a digital livelihood online. A ‘notoriously slow’ (Lewis, 2021) internet connection that is frequently disrupted due to shortage of fuel supply (El Deeb, 2022), and restrictions on bank accounts that transformed the financial dealings to a cash economy (Ricour-Brasseur, 2022), compounded to work on digital labour platforms – such as freelancing or microwork– as an unfeasible option. Accordingly, local jobs were the only options available for the graduates: a programme that aimed to tap into the powerful promise of online work to offer an alternative source of income was forced to consider local informal work and insecure entrepreneurship as the primary outcome.

A Forced Shift: Moving from Online Work to Local Markets

The programme was initially intended to harness the wealth of opportunities provided through WFP’s Innovation Accelerator’s contacts and the wider digital economy. The visit of Carlo Almendral from Silicon Valley to the DST centres in 2017 inspired the participants and raised their ambitions: they, too, could become successful digital entrepreneurs, coders or freelancers. Unfortunately, these expectations were limited by the wider barriers mentioned above. Instead of tapping into transnational online work or web-based entrepreneurship, career-placement officers were hired to scope for jobs in the local market and provide participants with soft skills to prepare them to apply and sit for interviews, while also exploring the possibility of applying digital skills to solve local problems.

While most graduates were not able to engage in a web-based online labour market, the programme enhanced the chances of some for employment within the local informal market that was severely affected by the fast-deteriorating economic crisis and the devaluation of the Lebanese pound to 3 per cent of its pre-2019 value. Some graduates found new work and others upgraded their existing roles. From a part-time employer in the storage room, one of the graduates got promoted to manage the inventory of a women’s clothing store. Another found a job in a local trading and services company and was promoted to a senior web developer within a year. A third example is of a forklift driver who decided to quit his job after excelling in the advanced DST track and joined a local start up as a software developer.

By 2020, seed funding of US$1500 from WFP was earmarked through the programme for the top 20 teams per year to develop startups related to the Lebanese context, taking a step away from seeing digital skills as a gateway to online markets. One example is that of a team who mapped poverty levels in the neighbourhoods surrounding a DST centre in Tripoli and used the seed funding to develop a startup titled GEO-GIS that is currently developing the municipality’s database. Another team plotted the route and timing of run-down public transport buses, commonly used in West Beqaa, and developed the Public Transport Regulator application that saved participants the time of waiting and provided destinations of safe pickup points. However, it is clear that these selective start-ups are not a solution that can work at scale, since funding is limited and failure is often implicitly part of such an entrepreneurship journey.

Conclusion

This critical examination of a digital skills programme targeting refugees and host community youth in Lebanon showed that this severely restrictive context undermines the feasibility of web-based income opportunities. Under the impact of various challenges, including financial exclusion, restricted labour market access and government interventions excluding refugees from trainings, making a livelihood online becomes a distant possibility for most refugees in Lebanon. This experience forced the programme to shift its attention to those few opportunities that the local market could provide. However, under the impact of the recent economic and financial crisis, these opportunities have increasingly faded too. In a span of less than three years, Lebanon went from a country known for its growing middle class to one with an inflation rate of over 240 per cent8 and a dramatic unemployment rate 50.1 per cent in 2022 (16.2 per cent in 2018–19).9

As part of ‘Future of Food’ series conducted by PBS NewsHour10 on the DST programme, Paul Skoczylas from the WFP Lebanon office made a link between food and online skills by referring to the well-known proverb: ‘You can give a person a fish or you can teach them to fish.’ However, from the perspective of the DST experience, this idea of ‘Tech for Food’, which was the original title of WFP’s programme now called EMPACT, seems misguided. Indeed, at first, refugees in Lebanon were restricted from reaching the waters to ‘fish’ (i.e., not allowed to work according to Ministry of Labour policy); they were then forbidden from being taught ‘how to fish’ (i.e., excluding refugees from DST according to Ministry of Social Affairs policy).

Despite falling between the cracks, the fortunate refugees who joined the DST cycles 2016–19 honed the essential skills that enabled many to forge employment pathways in the informal market. The examples provided in this field report demonstrated agility and adaptability as two key features that made DST particularly appropriate for refugees to manoeuvre in a context of chronic prejudice. However, all the agility in the world will not help if regulatory restrictions and barriers keep the doors to digital work opportunities locked.

Opportunities for Policy Change and Technological Innovation

To harness the programme’s potential, it is imperative for local decisionmakers to shift their perception of refugees as a burden to one that understands the opportunities digital labour markets provide for refugee employment. Indeed, working online or remotely does not put the same downward pressure on national labour markets as local work does. There is a need to include refugees in Lebanon’s 2020–30 Digital Transformation Strategy that aims for the reform and development of public administrations and reinforcing the digital economy.11 While the Strategy references ‘Lebanon’s obligations towards the international human rights law (IHL)’12 as a constitutional principle and acknowledges the need to create new laws and legislations to cope with the anticipated digital transformation, it falls short of including refugees within it. Inclusive policies and regulations that enable digital livelihoods are achievable through lifting the ban on refugees’ education, right to work and monetary transactions.

One may think that policy and regulatory restrictions can be overcome by innovations in digital technology: that every hurdle triggers someone to innovate a workaround. However, this is a dangerous way of thinking because exclusion and a lack of rights remain unchanged, while the workarounds bring additional risks with them. In particular, the collapse of the economic and financial sector in Lebanon has turned the country into a new testing ground for blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies as an alternative form of transaction and trade.13 One successful example that reflects the nature of such changing markets is the Jordan-based BitMal, a social enterprise enabled by a Blockchain infrastructure that offers online work related to social causes and pays in virtual currency that is exchanged in-kind. A group of six participants from the DST Beqaa centre created their profiles on the BitMal platform and applied to deliver a task to develop a data entry and an accounting software for a school serving refugee children in Tripoli. Upon the completion of works, each participant received a laptop. Transactions are not limited to in-kind, but rather Syrian refugees are increasingly trading using blockchain and cryptocurrency.14 These new technologies are promising, but without the right digital literacy and skills, there is a danger that this exposes them to scams and cybercrimes and makes an already risky situation for refugees in Lebanon even more precarious.

Notes

1

This excluded the large numbers of displaced Syrians in Lebanon not recorded by UNHCR as well as Palestinian refugees under the mandate of UNRWA.

2

Around half of participants had never used a PC before joining the DST programme.

3

Figure-Eight (later absorbed by Appen), which runs data projects and includes a global crowd of over 1,000,000 skilled contractors in over 130 countries, is one of the most advanced AI-assisted data annotation platforms.

4

OGERO constitutes the backbone infrastructure for all telecom networks in Lebanon including Mobile Operators, Data Service Providers (DSPs), Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and others.

6

Ibid.

7

The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) ‘brings more than 126 partner organisations together to assist 3.2 million crisis-affected individuals living in Lebanon.… Since 2015, Lebanon has received more than US$8.2 billion in support for vulnerable people under the LCRP’ (Government of Lebanon and United Nations, 2022).

12

Ibid.: 58 (Arabic version).

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