Digital livelihoods? The online gig economy and the future of decent refugee work in cities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


This project aims to explore the contribution of digitally mediated labour to the provision of decent work and livelihoods among displaced persons in cities, with a focus on Berlin and Beirut. Both these cities are leading hubs for digital innovation and have recently absorbed large numbers of refugees, prompting a growth in digital work initiatives. These emerged against the backdrop of a growing online 'gig economy' around the world amid an increasingly urban and 'connected' displaced population: more than 60 percent of the world's refugees now live in cities.
These combined factors of urbanised refugee economies and the digitalisation of work demand urgent research into the relationship between the online gig economy and displaced populations. Yet despite a growing body of research on digital economies in development contexts, it is poorly understood how the online gig economy reshapes the world of work among displaced persons. Aiming to fill this knowledge gap in partnership with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), and hosted by the University of Edinburgh, this project pursues three research objectives:
a) Generate empirical evidence about the digitally mediated work lives of refugees through fieldwork in Berlin and Beirut;
b) Gain insights through research of selected digital platforms that offer digital work opportunities and employment trainings;
c) Establish a new methodological framework that links ethnography with multidisciplinary methods in the social sciences of the digital, and develop new research skills through trainings.

In fulfilment of these research objectives, the project follows two overarching questions:
1) How does digitally mediated labour reshape refugees' access to decent work and sustainable livelihoods?
2) What implications do these transformations have for the rights and policies that govern urban refugee economies, and for the way displacement is conceptualised in the social sciences?

These overarching questions are complemented by three empirical sub-questions that correspond directly to the research objectives and three methodological dimensions:
a) What types of digitally mediated work do refugees do, how do they get access to it, and what impact does it have on their social and economic lives?
b) How do digital work platforms relate to the specific situation of displaced populations, and what impact do they pursue in comparison to the actual experiences of refugee workers?
c) What new combinations of qualitative ethnographic research and digital research methods allow us to grasp how digital economies and refugees' working practices intersect and overlap?

In line with the New Investigator Grant's aims, the project pursues additional objectives on two levels: skills development and impact.
Skills development objectives include completion of a leadership programme at the host institution; the development of new approaches and methods during a three-months visit to the Oxford Internet Institute (OII); and the learning of effective user engagement by collaborating with the ILO and providers of digital work opportunities in the third sector and the private sector.
The knowledge exchange and impact objectives include convening a workshop and an international conference with key users at the host institution; production of high-quality research outputs, including an ILO Working Paper, with impact on both users and academic beneficiaries; the creation of a project website and a Briefing for policy makers and platform developers titled 'A Just Gig Economy for Refugees'.
The newly gained skills, networks and knowledge throughout this project will facilitate the creation of sustainable research capacity at the host institution through follow-up funding applications with a clear long-term aim in mind: the formation of a research cluster on 'Digital Development' at Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science.

Planned Impact

This project sets out to contribute to a just online gig economy for refugees in cities. It produces important empirical evidence that will directly impact the work of international organisations, policy makers and digital developers. This way, it will help to improve the lives of displaced persons in need of decent economic opportunities and sustainable livelihoods.
The project lays out a pathway to impact that builds on a partnership with the International Labour Organization (ILO). Since the very beginning, key users were integrated into the design of the project to ensure its relevance, feasibility, and impact. The main impact is summarised as follows:

1) THIRD-SECTOR ORGANISATIONS, PROFESSIONALS AND PRACTITIONERS seeking to support refugee work and livelihoods in urban areas will directly benefit from this project:
a) This concerns mainly the ILO, its Migration branch, and its programmes in field offices. A concrete channel for impact will be a Working Paper published via the ILO.
b) The refugee programmes of other UN agencies will directly benefit, such as UNHCR, as will other civil society organisations that work locally in the two cities.
c) The WFP's 'Tech for Food' project will be one of the digital initiatives to be studied. This ensures direct impact on its programme and the future work of the global WFP 'Innovation Accelerator'.

a) This ground-breaking research will reach policy makers on an urban, national, and international level who regulate the economic lives of refugees and must rely on research evidence in designing their policies in inclusive ways.
b) The project will contribute to better labour market policies that take refugees' complex economic lives into account. Though its outputs and partnerships, it will reach diverse policy actors. This includes the labour and social affairs ministries in Germany and Lebanon who are in regular contact with the WFP and the ILO.
c) The ILO partnership opens direct channels of impact on international policy makers beyond the two countries studied: The global 'Future of Work' initiative creates momentum for impact through national debates around digital 'decent work'. Conferences and policy events around the ILO's centenary in 2019 will open doors for influencing policies via the ILO, and via the Working Paper and other outputs. This impact-amplifying global event lends urgency to the implementation of this project.

a) Research of digital initiatives in Berlin and Beirut opens access to direct channels of impact on the developers and creators behind these platforms and programmes. The project results allow them to design programmes and platforms in empowering ways.
b) For this purpose, the briefing 'A Just Gig Economy for Refugees' will directly influence the approaches of third and private sector professionals and developers of online work systems.
c) An international conference at the University of Edinburgh will include main beneficiaries, such as ILO experts and platforms developers.

a) Integrating influential researchers like Alexander Betts and Richard Heeks into the project as Advisory Board Members will open additional channels of impact beyond academia.
b) The research visit to the OII provides another platform for increasing the project's relevance and visibility through influential channels, including a blog post via the OII's website.

a) The project's own website will contribute to societal impact by making all non-academic project outputs freely available. The website will feature a frequently updated blog, social media updates, resources, links to publications, and a summary of the research project.
b) At least one briefing about displaced persons in the digital economy will be published on the leading humanitarian new site IRIN, to generate impact on its expert readership.


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Description The project is still ongoing but so far, I was able to generate an exchange between practitioners that could be considered impat: a workshop I organised in 2019 brought together social entrepreneurs, development practitioners, and researchers on the topic of digital refugee livelihoods and learning. This was one of the first workshops that brought together key actors in this field who chared their insights and learnt from each other for improved future practice. A write-up of the workshop and a list of participants can be found on the project website here:
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Other
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Research collaboration in Lebanon fieldsite 
Organisation American University of Beirut
Country Lebanon 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The CCECS at AUB is in collaboration with my project in order to research graduates and participants of their digital skill trainings. They provided access to the graduates from theiur programmes and this collaboration offers a pathway to impact future programme design.
Collaborator Contribution The CCECS at AUB is in collaboration with my project in order to research graduates and participants of their digital skill trainings. They provided access to the graduates from theiur programmes and this collaboration offers a pathway to impact future programme design.
Impact Not yet
Start Year 2020
Description Refugee work and digital livelihoods: workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This workshop aimed at creating capacity around digital refugee livelihoods and prepared the ground for two forthcoming publications: an ILO Working Paper and a special issue on digital livelihoods and refugee work.
The event was held at the University of Edinburgh and included members of social enterprises, development practitioners, researchers, and postgraduate students. The event succeeded in producing a collaborative collective that continues to work on these issues. The workshop report under publications includes all content.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019