Building bridges to nowhere? Financial inclusion is key to a future for refugees in the digitized economy

By Andreas Hackl

University of Edinburgh

Photo: "A Syrian student at a digital skills training in Lebanon shows an app he uses for online learning and job searching." By Andreas Hackl


Amid worldwide lockdown measures during the Covid-19 pandemic, remote work from home has become the new normal alongside a spread of mass unemployment. It would seem, then, that this resurgence of online and remote work offers opportunities to employ those who live in places with few decent work opportunities and a restrictive labour market. At the same time, transactions are increasingly cashless as people sell and buy online and coins or bank notes are currently associated with germs and potential harm.

As for now, it is difficult to say how permanent these two shifts towards remote online work and cashless payments are. But it is important to realize that both threaten to exacerbate the exclusion of already marginalized populations unless urgent coordinated action is taken on a global scale.

One of these populations are refugees, who not only face widespread restrictions to their right to work but are also often excluded in financial and digital terms. Indeed, as Micol Pistelli and Ziad Ayoubi of UNHCR write: “Most forcibly displaced, in particular refugees, are today excluded from the formal financial sector, which means they lack a safe place to save and receive money, affordable ways to make payments, and access to loans to invest in a business activity or to smooth their consumption needs.”


Digital refugee livelihoods and financial exclusion

The Digital Livelihoods research project has investigated the feasibility of online work among refugees, with Lebanon being one of its focal points. In Lebanon several layers of exclusion confine refugees to an invisible cage in a digital world:

  • Restrictions on opening bank accounts and the resulting inability to use digital payment methods effectively to cash out money, such as mobile wallets.
  • Legal restrictions on the right to work and the ability to open a business
  • Costly data plans, low-quality internet quality, and frequent power cuts
  • A lack of the necessary skills to compete and succeed in online and remote work independently

On top of these systematic problems, a persistent economic crisis and rapid currency devaluation has limited people’s ability to receive and withdraw money from online or remote work.

A range of digital skills training initiatives and providers of online work have struggled for the last four years to make digital refugee livelihoods function in Lebanon. These include aid-funded digital skills trainings that teach everything from basic computer literacy to web design and programming, alongside online work providers in language training, image annotation, and other kinds of outsourcing.


Political pressure and modest achievements

A systematic government clampdown on refugee work and tightening policies between 2018 and 2019 pushed an ever-growing number into utter destitution. Amid this pressure, UN agencies and other providers of digital skills training and online work accepted the imposed regime and decided to exclude Syrian refugees from digital training and work opportunities. In the face of an economic crisis that severely affected Lebanese and Syrians alike, initiatives emerged that seek to harness the power of the Lebanese diaspora to outsource remote jobs to “the Lebanese in Lebanon”.

The initial hype and excitement around digital refugee work has been silenced by several layers of political pressure and economic exclusion, alongside the spreading poverty in the host country.

Yet, even as the digital cage around refugees in Lebanon becomes ever more narrow, digital skills trainings and online work platforms continue to find ways of supporting them within a severely restricted context. Our research found that digital skills trainings often help graduates to build confidence and important transferrable skills that increase their career perspectives; and remote work has managed to serve a small number of Syrian refugees there as an economic lifeline in times of crisis.

It is clear, however, that the systematic exclusion of refugees from access to digital economies and financial services should no longer be tolerated and requires urgent coordinated action on a global scale. This includes the right to digital access and electronic payments.


Building bridges to nowhere?

Social enterprises and refugee online workers are forced to live with the existing “tricks” and “workarounds”, which include the need to divert money through local NGOs, to fly cash into the country for cash payments, or to find citizens as brokers that can open bank accounts on behalf of foreign businesses.

Although mobile wallets and digital payments have helped to improve refugees’ financial access elsewhere, they do not work for Syrians in Lebanon.

Especially mobile money has long been seen by development actors as having a high potential for financial inclusion. These mobile money services were dubbed bridges to cash, to describe “the use of mobile phones together with a network of human agents to replicate the functionality of the ATM or bank branch: If I don’t have access to a bank of an ATM, whether for reasons of distance or poverty, I can use my phone to access basic financial services.”[1] Mobile money could facilitate the exchange between cash and e-money, like a voucher: an electronic representation of real money.

But the idea that mobile money can easily be upscaled for the financial inclusion of the unbanked depends on a variety of factors, including the ability to turn mobile money into cash easily or use it for services, and a large network of agents or mediators who can facilitate money conversions from e-money to real money and back.


The future of digital refugee work

Rather than innovating informal solutions through the gaps between the iron bars of the systematic cage that locks refugees away from financial inclusion and digital work, political action is needed to safeguard the place of refugees in the future of digitized labour.

Informal and cash-based workarounds have so far been the main solutions to refugees’ financial exclusion in Lebanon for online employers. If society would be truly cashless, their financial exclusion would probably be near total.

As online work and remote payments are becoming pervasive, financial inclusion is key to people’s ability to participate in digital economies: the right to open a bank account and access a payment card, as well as the right to receive, convert, and transfer money nationally and internationally.

The case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon reveals the exclusive logic hidden within the ostensible “openness” of a global digital marketplace and within the presumed hypermobility of online work. To date there is only one meaning of “cashless” that reflects the experience of many refugees: not having any money.



[1] Maurer, Bill, Taylor C. Nelms, and Stephen C. Rea. “‘Bridges to Cash’: Channelling Agency in Mobile Money.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 1 (2013).