A European Social Fund (ESF) project in Luxembourg is successfully tackling some of society’s most pressing issues- digitalisation, migration, social inclusion and the circular economy - while also improving the lives of migrants.
Patrick de la Hamette is an IT engineer working for the Luxembourg government. One day in December 2015, he walked into a migrant shelter and his life changed forever. There he met displaced Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean technicians and engineers who, like him, were IT enthusiasts. He listened as they told him that what they missed in the shelter was a computer with internet access to keep them connected to the world and their families back home.
“Luxembourgers have too many computers; migrants in shelters have too much free time and no computers”. It was time to make the link.
Once back home, de la Hamette took to Facebook to launch a call for unwanted laptops. “Initially I just wanted to help a bunch of people” but, when laptops started pouring in, he realised that he could do much more than just that. Labour costs are so high in Luxembourg that it rarely makes economic sense to have a computer refurbished locally. Yet many asylum seekers are young, educated and enthusiastic, eager to keep themselves busy while they wait for their status to be approved.
With the help of a couple of tech-savvy refugees, he started dismantling, repairing and installing new software in the computers to offer them free-of-charge to refugees or families living in poverty. Mr de la Hamette’s small one-man project soon became a fully-fledged not-for profit organisation called Digital Inclusion which currently employs 14 staff and some 40 volunteer refugees. To date, it has prepared for reuse and distributed over 1 500 computers. Initially funded by the Oeuvre Nationale de Secours Grande Duchesse Charlotte, Digital Inclusion is now receiving funding from ESF Luxembourg. It has widened its scope to include digital skills training and computers classes in 9 different languages to improve people’s access to the labour market. The IT classes, part of the Digi4all ESF project, fall under the European Computer Driving Licence Programme (ECDL).
As Mr de La Hamette explains, “in our society, not having access to digital tools can become a factor of social exclusion. Refugees arriving in Luxembourg already face an array of challenges. Digital Inclusion ensures that access to the digital world and society is not one of them”.
A holistic philosophy for an inclusive approach
For Mr de la Hamette, a computer is the digital equivalent to a Swiss army knife, a versatile tool to solve multiple problems and he sees his project as “socially lucrative”: by helping people gain digital autonomy the aim is to accelerate their passage to the labour market.
Beyond social integration and digitalisation, the project also focuses on environmental action and the circular economy. By supplying refurbished computers, Digital Inclusion is not only helping people and social organisations save money, it is also extending the lifetime of resource-intensive electronic devices. Mr de la Hamette is pushing the concept of the circular economy even further by using vacant office space and second-hand furniture: Digital inclusion is legally occupying an old building soon to be demolished that would otherwise be empty: an eco-friendly and affordable space furnished with donated tables and chairs and insulated with discarded clothes.
With a philosophy of re-using unused resources, Mr de la Hamette is raising awareness about the need to reduce our consumption of electronic devices. “As long as some people do not have a mobile phone or a computer, we should not throw them away but find ways to extend their lifetime. We would like to spread the principle of zero waste in Luxembourg and, given the size of the country, we should be a 100% inclusive at the digital level. It is wrong to waste abundant IT resources while some do not have digital access. This is a message we would like everyone to hear.”
Digi4all, digital skills and transnationality
The ESF Digi4all project was presented at a meeting on the Learning and Skills Thematic Network (TN) of the ESF Transnational Platform (ESF TP) which took place in Luxembourg in February 2019. The TN has just released a publication highlighting how digital skills can be supported by the ESF in different countries. Digi4all is one of the promising ESF projects included in the publication.
Although Digi4all is not a transnational project, its holistic approach can be transferred to a variety of contexts. Its combined approach to IT, social inclusion and the circular economy takes widespread human and material resources into account. The project is an excellent learning example because it showcases how an innovative, flexible and inclusive training programme can help address learning challenges faced by migrants and people far from the labour market.