The Digital Transformation
The digital economy can offer a new and promising path forward for people seeking employment across the globe. Online platforms are altering the future of work, reducing barriers to entry and blurring the distinction between formal and informal labor. In this new environment, innovative work models offer significant opportunity to the digitally literate and can improve livelihoods for vulnerable populations, including women and refugees, by allowing them access to flexible employment opportunities. Online marketplaces can help entrepreneurs reach local target audiences they may not otherwise be able to service, allowing small businesses to overcome fragmented markets that are common in developing countries.
However, within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the digital economy is still nascent. While the region is moving toward greater participation in the digital economy, women, and particularly women refugees, continue to be largely left behind. In Jordan and Lebanon, the transition to digital work has occurred alongside an influx of Syrian refugees whose arrival has contributed to economic challenges, from increased unemployment to rising housing costs, and who face restrictions on working in both countries. While Jordan has moved to ease some barriers to employment for refugees, including online work, there are multiple challenges and constraints to employment in the digital economy for refugees in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the arrival of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020 accelerated the shift to the digital space and created an even greater need for stakeholders to build programs that provide inclusive opportunities for women, including refugee women, in the digital economy.
At present, the female employment rate in Jordan and Lebanon remains quite low, at less than 15 percent and 26 percent, respectively. The female employment rate in Syria, where many refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are from, is also low—at just 14 percent in 20192 . Refugees’ exclusion in the digital economy forces them into the informal economy.
Evidence is building to suggest that if refugee women had more access to digital employment opportunities their contribution to the economy could be significant. For instance, the World Bank notes that in Jordan, where as few as 1 in 15 refugee women participate in the work force, refugee women could boost Jordan’s GDP by approximately US$ 145 million annually if the employment and earnings gap between them and other Jordanian women was eliminated4. While a 2019 study in Jordan found that technology-based startups had employed a relatively high percentage of women, more work must be done to understand the barriers and opportunities faced by women, including refugee women, in Jordan and Lebanon to enable them to participate in the digital economy, while adding value to the economies of their host communities.
Aside from the 2019 study, there is limited research on the barriers and opportunities to women’s participation in the digital economy, creating a knowledge gap that critically hinders the ability of policymakers and development organizations to devise evidence-based responses. Closing this knowledge gap is essential to driving holistic program development and decision-making to promote the role female freelance work in the digital space. Closing the gap requires ensuring that available evidence is embedded in broader discussions of technological, economic, and labor market trends.
Greater knowledge can also inform the ways in which online freelance work can provide decent opportunities for women and protect them from exploitation, low wages, and financial insecurity6.
With this report, IFC aims to explore the barriers and opportunities for refugee women to participate in the digital economy in Jordan and Lebanon. This report seeks to consider not only the microeconomic factors that impact the women’s individual circumstances, but also to contribute to the dialogue around national policies and macroeconomic factors that can exacerbate their inability to find online work. The report offers initial findings and recommendations to development organizations, policymakers, and other private and public stakeholders seeking to address barriers to employment and to promote opportunities for refugee women in the digital workforce in these countries. However, this study’s findings are limited in scope due to the narrow pool of respondents, which included a larger number of younger, unmarried, and more educated women than the general female refugee populations in Jordan and Lebanon. Respondents in this pool also likely had more experience with digital training and with online work than the general refugee population.