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Programming a brighter future for refugees

14th November 2018

Ben Mason rounds up betterplace lab’s recent peer-learning event at the Techfugees Global Summit.

Now and then you end up reading an article or book that, in order to focus the reader’s attention, reels off a list of all the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades. Such a list reliably includes the digitisation of our economies and the social fallout of all that creative disruption, as well as finding an adequate response to increasing numbers of refugees and displaced people globally.

Our work in DSI4EU’s migration and integration cluster sits at the intersection of these two challenges. In doing so, it partially reframes the logic of such a doomsday list: digitisation, while not without challenges, gives us powerful tools which can help in the work of refugee support and inclusion.

In the past couple of years working in this space, one category of “refugee tech” project that I’ve been most drawn to is “refugee coding schools” - initiatives which train refugees and newcomers in IT skills and software development. The cool thing about these projects is that they extend the challenges-to-opportunities reframing so that it works in both directions: what if newcomers, rather than being seen as a burden on social and humanitarian systems, could be an asset for our economies and societies in navigating the digital age?

In the workshop I led at the Techfugees Global Summit, representatives from twelve different coding school projects came together to share experience and exchange ideas. Here are a few of the things we learned.


Varying approaches

The first part of the workshop was about making visible the diverse range of approaches of the different projects. Although the concept of “refugee coding schools” is gaining interest among some policymakers, closer inspection shows that this catch-all term contains a wide range. One crucial difference, for instance, is in the target skill level.

At one end of the spectrum are the intensive “bootcamp” approaches. Modelled on programmes that have been successful in the commercial tech world for some time, participants in a bootcamp have an immersive experience with 35 hours+ of classes each week over several months, with the goal that students can walk into a junior developer position after finishing. Projects adapting this approach for refugees include Switzerland’s PowerCoders, France’s Simplon and Jordan’s MIT ReACT (all present at the workshop) as well as Devugees and RBK.

At the other end of the spectrum, some projects aim to reach those with minimal digital literacy and give them a basic grounding in IT skills with a less intense schedule of just one or two  classes a week – such as Konexio and ReDI’s women’s programme.

Both approaches (and variants in between) clearly have potential impact, but it’s impact of a different kind. Different groups stand to benefit: realistically only a small minority of the refugee population will be well suited to enrol on a demanding bootcamp programme. In fact, I think there is an underexplored site of collaboration here as a kind of pipeline, where the lower-intensity, higher-intake programmes can serve as the outreach and screening function, identifying suitable candidates for the more in-depth programmes.


Common challenges 

The second half of the workshop was sharing experiences and lessons, and identifying points of potential collaboration. We weren’t short of examples. There isn’t space to list them all here; I’ll relate just three which seemed especially interesting.

Firstly: One initiative described how they had enormous difficulties increasing the rate of female participation in their courses, which was currently at a lowly 3%. Another programme described how – in part by providing childcare – they had succeeded in raising the proportion of women in their courses to over 30%.

Secondly: One working group looked at different models for funding and partnerships. It seems there is a dilemma facing many of these projects as they approach potential corporate partners. One way or another, coding schools most commonly end up in discussion with the corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments – even if they try to make contact elsewhere in the organisation, they normally get referred. But several projects worry that this makes for partnerships which are not truly sustainable, because it becomes asymmetrically dependent on the company’s goodwill and engagement. To get on a truly sustainable footing would mean making the value of what coding schools do – i.e. providing a source of new employees – tangible enough that they’re talking with HR departments instead. It’s a tricky mixture of strategy, positioning and communication.

Thirdly: We brainstormed the beginnings of a shared policy agenda. My sense is that this could be an especially fruitful area to work together on, but also an especially challenging one. It’s clear that coding schools are running up against policy issues in various directions. French projects find it difficult to tailor programmes specifically to refugees without running afoul of national laws on equality and discrimination; German projects aiming to become state-recognised providers of training have various bureaucratic obstacles in their way; Jordanian projects are concerned about training refugees to a professional level who may nevertheless be denied a work permit; and so on. The complexity comes from not only divergence between different national contexts, but also the intersection of different policy agendas: integration, labour market and digital. Given the resonance at the workshop, we are exploring the possibility of following up with a policy event on these issues in 2019 – watch this space.

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Images: betterplace lab



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