Jobs and Skills

How to bridge the demand gap for tech freelancers in developing economies

Freelancing is transforming developing countries.

Freelancing is transforming developing countries. Image: Freepik.com

David Alexandru Timis
Global Communications Manager, Generation
Teresa Pallarés-Ramos
Fellow, European Leadership Programme
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  • Digitalization and COVID-19 have bolstered demand for freelancers in developing countries.
  • Tech-related roles, found through online platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr, are particularly needed.
  • But more investment is needed to equip workers with key digital skills and widen internet access.

Freelancing involves self-employed individuals with specialist knowledge, skills, and experience that usually have multiple clients and are compensated on a per project basis. In developing countries, freelancing has undergone a major shift in recent years, propelled by the digitalization wave that has gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, bolstering the demand for freelancers as businesses increasingly rely on digital solutions to increase productivity.

The process of digitalisation has played a central role, with a notable surge in the demand for technology-related roles, which determined online platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr to connect freelancers and employers to meet the growing demand.

Freelancing has undergone a major shift in recent years.
Freelancing has undergone a major shift in recent years. Image: Online Labour Observatory 2020.

As freelancing platforms provide skilled individuals in developing countries that have a good command of English language and in-demand digital skills with access to higher paying jobs, the dictum “talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not” is gradually becoming outdated. Bangladesh is one such country that reaps the economic benefits that remote work provides.

What's being done to harness the freelancing opportunity?

According to the International Labour Organization's report on The Role of Digital Labour Platforms in Transforming the World of Work, three challenges need to be overcome in order to provide access to work and equal opportunities to people in developing countries: limited access to social protection; the existing pay gap between freelancers in developed and developing countries; and the need to increase payments’ accessibility, which is currently fragmented due to the different payment methods that are out there. Moreover, youth and women experience higher levels of unemployment in developing countries.

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Public policies aimed at bridging the digital divide (e.g. affordable and robust broadband internet service, internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of users, equipping citizens with digital skills, etc.), are key to overcoming these challenges. For example, government initiatives such as Smart City, Swachh Bharat, and Digital India aim to transform and digitally empower Indian society. Initiatives such as the Oxford University-based Pathways for Prosperity and Digital Pathways programmes seek inclusive growth through effective governance of digital technologies in developing countries.

In Bangladesh, a pilot project ran from 2018 to 2022, establishing a freelancing incubator that trained rural youth, enabling them to successfully enter the online freelancing marketplace after their internships. The Sub-Saharan region, having over 60% of its population under the age of 25 years old, is witnessing a surge in digital training programmes (Semicolon,Moringa, Ajira Digital, Umuzi), coupled with a rise of continental-based freelancing platforms (Decagon, Pariti, Gebeya).

To spread the potential benefits of digital freelancing as widely and inclusively as possible, public-private partnerships that support community-based actions built on skills acquisition, financing programmes, gender equity, and the future of work have emerged in recent years. Accelerators Network, a transversal initiative led by the Centre for the New Economy and Society at the World Economic Forum, is one such platform out of which skilling accelerators with a focus on youth and women have been launched in India, Nigeria, and Cambodia.

Freelancing is transforming developing countries by enabling their citizens to make the most of what a remote work world has to offer and improve their economic mobility in the process.
Freelancing is transforming developing countries by enabling their citizens to make the most of what a remote work world has to offer and improve their economic mobility in the process.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2023 Global Appeal projected the number of refugees, internally displaced and stateless people to reach a record 117 million by the end of this year, with four out of five hosted in developing countries. Forcibly displaced people are often unable to access the labour markets they enter due to legal constraints, lack of relevant work experience, and the age or gender biases they sometimes face.

To help them overcome these constraints, numerous initiatives have been launched in recent years to empower refugees with the skills and practical experience they need to start a career in the digital economy as freelancers. Such initiatives include: EMPACT, a World Food Programme project aimed at connecting youth to the digital economy in countries around the world; WorkWell, an organization aimed at equipping displaced Syrians and Iraqis with tech and entrepreneurship skills; and Concat, a Lebanese web development agency that is led by refugee female developers.

Empowering workers

Freelancing is transforming developing countries by enabling their citizens to make the most of what a remote work world has to offer and improve their economic mobility in the process. Moreover, freelancing is empowering women, youth, refugees, and displaced individuals to break down historic employment barriers and challenge stereotypes and ingrained biases, ultimately promoting a more inclusive economic growth, especially in developing countries. However, there are several challenges to tackle, which will require investments in improving the broadband internet service and in training programmes to equip people with digital skills.

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