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Inclusive and dignified digital work: linking markets and displaced people
  • Andhira Yousif Kara, Lorraine Charles, Giselle Gonzales and Selen Ucak
  • May 2024
Refugee learners during Na'amal's 2020 training with Chams in Jordan. Credit: Sofiane Ammar

A team of four experts – with experience upskilling refugees, facilitating job linkages, impact investing, researching economic inclusion, and lived experience as a refugee – discuss the barriers that displaced people face in accessing digital work and how these can be overcome.

Digital work is, in theory, a win-win for refugees and the host community. Refugees are able to earn money without competing with the host community for local jobs and companies are able to achieve diversity in their workforce. However, displaced people often face significant barriers to accessing formal and informal work in the digital sector, from getting market-relevant upskilling, to accessing paid opportunities after training, to unlocking capital to fund digital livelihoods. This article considers how these challenges can be addressed.

Andhira’s experience with digital skills and work

I am a Sudanese refugee who has been living in Kenya for the past 20 years. For protracted refugees like myself, job training is often considered a key to unlocking opportunities, and digital work presents a more accessible and inclusive alternative to formal employment that requires fewer permits. So, I was keen to undertake training that might lead to job opportunities in this area.

My experience began with a month-long digital training offered by a non-profit organisation working with refugees. The training focused on basic computer skills and creating profiles on popular digital freelancing platforms. Although this was a promising opportunity, I struggled to secure a job online for six months as I required more than just basic computer skills. Furthermore, beyond the widely-recognised infrastructural challenges (such as needing a computer, reliable internet and electricity, and a payment account/platform – none of which was supported as part of the programme) I needed more advanced digital skills or specialised skills in transcription, translation or academic writing competencies to secure at least my first job and start building a strong profile.

Building skills for digital work

As Andhira’s experience demonstrates, refugees seek employment in digital work to overcome restrictions on their rights to work locally and to access wider opportunities. Yet many lack the necessary skills, networks and sector knowledge to obtain income through online work. Developing skills for refugees to navigate the digital economy is essential to advance and sustain careers across geographic borders in the face of legal, logistical and attitudinal hurdles.

There is a global demand for workers who have both technical digital expertise and non-technical skills, or soft skills. Occupations that are predicted to grow are disproportionately among those that require a high level of education and intensive skills in social and interpretative tasks. Growth will be seen in cutting-edge industries, such as AI and machine learning specialists, sustainability specialists, information security analysts and fintech engineers. This is backed up by data from freelancing platforms where IT jobs such as machine learning, automation specialists and data analysts have seen significant growth in demand.

A need for non-technical soft skills

According to the World Economic Forum, the skills that employers perceive as most important for the jobs of the future are cognitive skills – analytical and creative thinking, self-efficacy, resilience, flexibility and agility (which many refugees possess due to their experience of displacement), motivation and self-awareness, and curiosity and life-long learning. In fact, within the global workforce, the talent gap in soft skills is more pronounced than in technical digital skills.

To take advantage of the opportunity to engage in digital work, refugees need to be equipped with these non-technical skills, plus know how to communicate and collaborate in a virtual setting, with an understanding of different work cultures. The focus on soft or non-technical skills is often overlooked in training curricula. Organisations such as Na’amal, which support refugees through training and mentorship with a focus on soft skills and remote work, can help connect forcibly displaced people with opportunities. Na’amal also works with partners to address and advocate for improving access to digital infrastructure.

Missing market linkages for upskilled displaced talent

Yet, even with all the right market-driven training, one critical gap remains: market linkages between refugee talent and employers. Graduates from programmes by organisations supporting displaced communities face countless invisible barriers to accessing sustainable opportunities online.

Platform-enforced geographical restrictions exclude displaced and local communities from many popular freelancing and payment platforms that international businesses rely on to find, employ and pay skilled workers. This disproportionately impacts countries with the highest rates of displaced communities. Without this access, both refugees and locals struggle even to be considered for work, let alone bid for and secure opportunities. Even in host countries not blocklisted by platforms, talented individuals may not be found and trusted in an already competitive online labour market. Achieving refugee employment in the digital economy at scale will require deliberate and targeted market linkages. One way to encourage these linkages is by working within the private sector itself to redirect existing demand to an otherwise overlooked supply of talent.

How impact sourcing policies can encourage the recruitment of displaced people

While recruiting platforms and corporate networks exist to provide refugees with formal employment, there remains an underleveraged opportunity to connect refugee talent with fair freelancing projects via impact sourcing. First formalised as a concept in 2013 by the Rockefeller Foundation, impact sourcing is “an inclusive employment practice through which companies in global supply chains intentionally hire and provide career development opportunities to people who otherwise would have limited prospects for formal employment.”

Procurement processes for digital services are already a normal part of operations for enterprises, small and medium-sized businesses, start-ups, NGOs, and even government organisations. In many cases initiatives around diversity, equity, inclusion and social impact already exist to source work to under-represented communities. So, without needing to change market behaviour, existing corporate practices and outsourcing projects can be leveraged to funnel work to talented displaced people.

Governments are increasingly introducing reporting requirements for companies to show social value through the goods and services they purchase, and are requiring their own public bodies to do the same. By sourcing work to organisations that support the employment of refugees, businesses can meet their social impact commitments, enhancing their competitiveness to secure contracts with business or government and to meet investor demands.

Connecting displaced people with dignified digital work

How can the private sector connect with talented displaced people? There is a role for intermediary organisations with the capacity to connect enterprises, start-ups, small to medium businesses, NGOs, or governments with talented teams from refugee communities and host communities. One example of such an organisation is EqualReach, a social enterprise founded by co-author of this article Giselle Gonzales. Giselle identified a market demand for trusted contingent workforces, based on practices she observed in the private sector while working with Fortune 50 companies.

EqualReach connects vetted freelancing teams of displaced individuals who can work on digital projects with companies in the private sector. These teams can work on projects that require a wide range of skills. For example, one company is working with EqualReach on two projects: (1) process automation involving web development plus DevOps engineering and (2) low-complexity web research. This work is being delivered by two reliable, skilled teams in Ethiopia and Kenya, through EqualReach’s trusted delivery partner, Na’amal, enabling workers to earn 4-10x higher wages than comparable opportunities available to refugees in the region.

Teams are identified by vetting and partnering with (1) refugee-led organisations, (2) social enterprises, and (3) NGO/government initiatives that are already supporting displaced and host communities with upskilling, infrastructure/digital access, mentorship, career guidance and navigating local regulations with hyper-local expertise.

EqualReach presents a curated selection of teams for businesses to choose from (pre-vetted for the requirements of a project), and facilitates the contracting, payments, and communication from start to finish. This removes many of the barriers refugees typically face securing work with international clients, while positioning talented displaced people as the primary customers to avoid exploitation and maximise the earnings they receive.

Unlocking capital for digital livelihoods

Innovative social enterprise models facilitating private sector engagement and companies that employ and source from refugees – especially those led by displaced communities – need investment to maximise the potential of digital work, but often face barriers to secure financing. The growing field of ‘refugee lens investing’ is well-positioned to mobilise impact-aligned capital to address this challenge while reducing the pressure on humanitarian funding needs and filling the gaps left by traditional investments.

The Refugee Investment Network (RIN), the first blended finance and impact investing collaborative dedicated to solutions in global forced displacement, has developed a refugee lens investing (RLI) framework for this purpose. The lens enables investors to assess and track investments that advance refugee self-reliance. It includes investing in ‘refugee-supporting companies,’ i.e. those that intentionally offer employment to refugees, including digital jobs, or source from companies that do so.

Tim Docking, CEO of RIN, explains: “Through our RLI market analysis in East Africa, we have found that some of the best examples of refugee-led and supporting enterprises leverage the internet, with lower start-up costs and remote work possibilities. Investors are often familiar with tech business models and drawn to them as potential investments.”

The investment community can be encouraged to deploy capital through the refugee lens with the provision of robust networks, tools and advice. Refugee-supporting firms can be strengthened to appeal more to investors through technical assistance to develop their capabilities around financial and digital literacy. Creating a robust pipeline of investable enterprises and a steady flow of business proposals and investment pitches is critical to fostering the refugee lens investing ecosystem, as is showcasing success stories.

One example is Chatterbox, a UK-based, refugee-founded online language-learning programme for professionals that serves corporate clients while tapping into the talent of refugees and other marginalised communities and bringing them into the digital economy. The company has been backed by investors in Europe and Silicon Valley for its impact as a social enterprise and its financial viability.

However, traditional venture financing may not always align with digital livelihood projects in displacement and emerging market contexts. Blended capital, development finance and innovative approaches, such as outcomes-based financing, can help reduce perceived risks and align investor interest with local social impact.

Other examples of impact enterprises which provide jobs in the digital economy for refugee workforces include Natakallam, a language learning and translation platform; CONCAT, a web development agency, and Humans in the Loop, a company that employs refugees in the Middle East and Africa in data annotation and other AI services.

Humans in the Loop uses its profits to support NGO partners and upskilling. Founder and CEO Iva Gumnishka explains: “We considered raising dilutive investment, but we couldn’t get a good valuation from traditional and impact investors”. Her comment highlights the need for capital on a wide spectrum of return and impact expectations to scale-up effective social enterprises in this space.

In addition to investing in employment models, ecosystem-building impact investments that increase digital literacy, enable financial inclusion and build the necessary digital infrastructure are important for supporting digital livelihoods. Investing in digital livelihoods with a refugee lens contributes to “promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all (Goal 8 [of the Sustainable Development Goals])” and supports the SDG Digital Acceleration Agenda.

The way forward

While digital work presents an alternative for decent livelihood creation for refugees, the reality involves many invisible challenges. This includes lack of proper digital skills training – including advanced skills like web development, programming and data science – as well as soft skills, language skills and career coaching. Along with transferable skills, refugees need access to professional networks, the opportunity to gain confidence and experience for improved employment, and be inspired to pursue higher goals in a positive social environment. Most importantly, initiatives that create market linkages to connect forcibly displaced people with dignified digital work and unlock capital to invest in relevant social enterprises and businesses are necessary.

In order to drive financial sustainability, lasting social impact, and fair and scalable employment, there is a need to:

  • provide demand-driven training that covers both technical and non-technical skills and allows talented displaced people access to decent and dignified livelihoods that align with their aspirations;
  • support fair marketplaces and refugee-employing intermediaries that connect global clients to talented displaced people via impact sourcing for contracts that enable individuals to gain experience and earn globally competitive incomes;
  • mobilise the private sector and impact capital through a refugee lens, with financing that can seed innovative models and scale local enterprises that employ and source from refugees, to enable economic inclusion and self-reliance, and
  • continue building public-private-and-philanthropic partnerships to invest in digital infrastructure, from computers to internet service, and increase access to refugee and host communities.

This multifaceted approach, engaging diverse stakeholders – from community organisations and entrepreneurs to corporations and funders – will create inclusive online economies that benefit both forcibly displaced people and their host communities.


Andhira Yousif Kara
Consultant Researcher and Refugee Advocate

Lorraine Charles
Executive Director of Na’amal and Research Associate, Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge

Giselle Gonzales
Founder and CEO of EqualReach

Selen Ucak
Entrepreneurship Lead at Refugee Investment Network and Impact Consultant

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