The virtual gig economy is becoming an increasingly common feature of the modern employment landscape, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is no exception. Youth in the MENA region are turning their focus to online gig work in response to local job shortages, which have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The absence of sufficient levels of job creation across the MENA, coupled with the region’s rising youth unemployment rates and challenges in making a living through service sector gig work make higher skilled virtual gig work a potentially promising avenue of employment for youth. However, even higher skilled gig workers can face income instability due to gaps between contracts and variations in contract sizes, and gig workers in the MENA typically lack access to benefits and government social security schemes. The potential for these opportunities to generate sustainable employment will depend on addressing the legal gray zone within which the region’s gig workers operate and improving digital skills and technology access among youth.
Multiple initiatives in recent years have focused on the development of the MENA’s burgeoning tech sector and expanding youth access to virtual jobs including Digital Jobs Africa, an initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Youth, Technology, and Jobs Project of the World Bank. EFE-Palestine and Gaza Sky Geeks have also delivered virtual jobs programming for youth in Gaza. These efforts appear in line with the preferences of many youth in the region. In a recent study on the impacts of COVID-19 on youth employment in Jordan an Palestine, Education For Employment (EFE) found that the majority of unemployed youth surveyed were interested or extremely interested in working in virtual jobs – 87% in Jordan and 80% in Palestine.
As youth struggle to recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and increasing amounts of resources are directed toward preparing them to work in online gig work, the stakes have never been higher for getting training programs right. In order to prepare youth to seize these opportunities, development practitioners and educational institutions should focus on equipping them with the skills and resources needed to remain resilient in what is becoming an increasingly crowded and competitive space. A search for “Logo Design” on the gig work platform Fiverr generates more than 10,000 service providers with prices starting as low as $5 US, demonstrating the need to offer distinctive value add.
The higher cost of living in many MENA countries compared to other regions may mean that youth need to possess more specialized technical skills in order earn a sustainable incomes. Technical boot camp models may be a promising approach for upskilling youth to meet market demand given their potential to improve participant skills rapidly.
Online certification programs for skills such as programming languages should be leveraged to provide youth with the needed credentials to signal their skills to clients across borders. Data suggests that there is potential to increase the use of these platforms among the region’s youth. In a 2019 study, EFE found that only one in four youth surveyed in Algeria had taken a course online, and among youth who pursue this type of learning, only 11% use certificate-granting platforms that are internationally recognized.
In addition to technical skills, foreign language skills may be beneficial to include in programs as a way to enable youth to expand their market reach. Although some EFE graduates have successfully pursued gig opportunities in Arabic through the Gulf market, many opportunities require working knowledge of English. The majority of MENA countries rank low or very low on the English Proficiency Index, suggesting that English language instruction should form a key component of any comprehensive online gig work training. Similarly, French language training may support youth in North Africa to pursue opportunities in French-speaking markets.
These services can be delivered at technology centers to increase youth access to equipment, software, high-speed internet, and connections to the digital financial services required to enable them to receive payments from abroad. Although mobile internet penetration is nearly 50% in the MENA, many lack access to computers. A recent UNDP study in Jordan found that just 17.4% of those surveyed had access to a laptop or desktop computer, and access was significantly lower in some regions outside of Amman. These gaps suggest that technology centers could go a long way to help youth pursue online gig work.
In addition to providing key resources, technology centers could convene groups of freelancers with complementary skillsets to form consulting teams, paving the way for the formation of scalable, youth-led entrepreneurial endeavors. This model could enable teams to secure larger and more complex contracts than would be feasible for individual freelancers, allowing youth to access a wider range of opportunities, earn higher incomes, and avoid competing with their peers for the same assignments.
While the future of the virtual gig economy is uncertain, much can be done to prepare youth in the MENA to earn their piece of the pie through upskilling, increased access to technology, and advocacy aimed at formalizing their status vis-à-vis national social protection systems.