Challenges in context
According to an Oxfam report, half a billion people could be pushed into poverty by COVID-19. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), warned that the crisis is expected to wipe out 6.7% of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020. The situation has directly hit the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region. Export, travel, transportation and tourism are already in decline.
Many businesses have moved rapidly to shift their work towards remote and digital solutions. New skills are required to address the change in demand for jobs. Quality of jobs has been undermined in the labour market as large numbers of people are becoming unemployed. Women are in the most disadvantaged situation.
The rapid movement toward digitalisation raises questions on the impact on people without access to the internet. Accessing computers and smartphones can be expensive and might not be easily available to everyone, particularly to those living in remote and rural areas.
While investing in digital technologies can provide opportunities for young people, it also poses challenges for specific youth segments. For example, in the MENA region, almost 28% of youth, aged between 15-29, fall under the Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET) category. Young women are twice as likely as young men to have NEET status globally. The numbers are even higher in the MENA region.
Governments in the region are trying to increase the supply of technological services, but this can take time. For example, Jordan signed a 200 Million USD agreement with the World Bank to improve digital services and access to jobs for youth and unserved communities under the Jordan Youth, Technology and Jobs Project.
Oxfam’s Youth Participation and Employment (YPE) program, with support from the Danish Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP), supports using technology to foster youth employment in the region.
YPE started in 2018 in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco. The objective of the program is to create jobs and help entrepreneurs. This is more important than ever in the current context.
YPE contributed to a model of change that linked a large number of unemployed people with different jobs. The YPE programme recently shared it’s learning through a COVID-19 response webinar series. Working with partners, the programme shared its blended approach which strikes the balance between online and offline instruments for improving economic opportunities and enhancing young people’s technical and life skills in target countries.
YPE works with two pioneer organisations, Basharsoft in Egypt and Leaders of Tomorrow (LoT) in Jordan. They are primarily focused on using digital solutions for employment and economic opportunities. Both organisations provide digital solutions that aim to enhance economic opportunities and create partnerships through e-learning, digital job matching, e-commerce, coaching and mentoring, as well as access to jobs, internships and personalized career counselling.
Who we worked with
The tech company Basharsoft launched two online platforms (Wuzzuf and Forasna) for linking job seekers and employers. They targeted white and blue-collar job seekers. Both platforms became popular, with about 5 million people registered in its databases, and an average of 1 million visitors per month.
Leaders of Tomorrow (LoT) is a social enterprise and hub for social innovation. Over the past decade, LoT founded two online platforms Forsa and Souq Fann. Forsa improves access to the job market for young people in the MENA region, addressing gaps in their education, skills and experience. Whereas Souq Fann is the first e-commerce portal in the region for handicrafts, which aims to support youth and women entrepreneurs from urban and rural areas as well as vulnerable backgrounds to sell their products in Jordan and beyond.
- Oxfam partners have demonstrated skills in how to use technology effectively for accessing employment in the Covid-19 context. They can become a conduit in sharing learning and developing a network of practitioners and technology users. Daily visitors to the FORSA platform have increased from 50,000 daily visitors to almost 150,000 per day during the lockdown period. New ways of work are growing rapidly, such as freelance jobs, remote work, and part-time jobs. Young women and men in the region need a good knowledge of using digital tools and digital literacy. However, decent jobs should be advocated for, as this form of work often comes with increased vulnerability.
- Use of technology proved to be an empowering tool for women who could apply it effectively within the home environment. This is useful in the MENA region, where mobility, conservative social norms and safety concerns prevent women from participating in the labour market. Forsa and Souq Fan provided an opportunity during lockdown for young women to invest their time developing skills through distance learning and engage in producing handicrafts and other products to be sold online. We found that the number of visitors to Forsa’s motivational content course increased from 1,500 before the lockdown to more than 29,000 visitors during the lockdown period. Besides, 271 new products were added to Souq Fan and 4 new vendors joined the platform. However, amid the COVID-19 situation, sales and income generated through the platform have been reduced considerably due to limited market demand as well as restrictions imposed by lockdown measures. We should still be aware that technology can also further solidify conservative social norms as women could be seen as staying at home and still engaging in earning some income.
- Using advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning improves the analysis of gathered data for accurate job matching. Online job-matching portals help in generating insightful data for bridging skills gaps. Generating data on demand and supply, provide a clear understanding of market gaps and allows partners and learning solution providers to bridge skills among job seekers and employers. This data could also help policymakers devise regulatory measures that could stimulate the job market further.
- Technology can provide an equal and fair opportunity for young people to enhance their capacities. E-learning platforms can provide youth with relevant content and access to skills training, reading materials, and educational videos to build their skills. Digital solutions can provide affordable learning experiences that vulnerable young people may not have direct access to. Yet, development organizations and donors still need to consider the most vulnerable youth that might not have access to an internet connection or adequate devices. Therefore, a focus on making online activities accessible is always of primary importance.
- Collaboration between online job portals and organizations that use offline modalities for job matching can provide wider opportunities for job seekers to enhance partnerships in the employment ecosystem. Linking job fairs and online job matching portals can further widen opportunities. In December 2019, Basharsoft conducted its first paperless employment fair through the support of YPE in Egypt with 2,178 job seekers in attendance.
- Donors and international organizations should rely on local knowledge and engage with existing programs, private companies and social enterprises. YPE partners have recommended investing efforts to scale-up and support existing digital and tech initiatives and platforms rather than starting from scratch.
- Amid a rapidly growing digital sphere, organizations and online platforms should pay attention to data protection risks and ensure the utmost safety of their users. Job matching platforms require a lot of personal information from users that needs to be safely stored. Platforms must invest in data security to minimize any possibility of data breaches. In addition, online platforms should seek legal support from professional lawyers to adhere to local and international data protection legislation that has been ratified by governments or others, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the European Union (EU).
Contributions and ideas from our partners represented by Ameer Sherif and Dr. Sami Hourani together with Oxfam teams led by Youmna Al Khattam in Egypt and Rula Aburub in Jordan have inspired the lessons learnt.