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Samasource Provides Jobs for Poor Via the Internet

  • Monaliza Noormohammadi

The World Bank says 1.3 billion of the world's seven billion people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.25 a day. Aid organizations have long relied on charitable contributions to help the world's poor. But the head of one aid group argues that giving to charity is the wrong approach.

"I really don't like charity. I think charity does a disservice to the people that it tries to help," said Leila Janah, founder and chief executive officer of Samasource, a non-governmental organization that uses the Internet and the abundance of digital work to employ hundreds of people living in poverty around the world.

"People want to earn their own money and make their own decisions about how they spend it and I think the biggest tragedy in the development world, the development community is that we've often dictated to poor people what they should or should not do and I think it's belittling."

A graduate of Harvard University, Janah has spent much of the past 10 years working in the development sector and visiting poor countries. But it was during her first trip to Ghana, at age 17, that she discovered an untapped resource, human brainpower. Many of the poor children she met were smart and spoke English they had potential and skills.

"It really flipped my understanding of economic development and poverty on its head and I realized that we don't live in a global meritocracy," added Janah.

The idea for Samasource was born later when Janah visited an outsourcing center in India while working for a management firm. If people from impoverished places could use the Internet to work, Janah thought, why couldn't countless others living in rural areas do the same.

That's where Samasource comes in.

Working from its headquarters in San Francisco, Samasource secures digital work contracts from big technical organizations, and then breaks down large-scale projects into what they call "microwork," accessible to Samasource workers anywhere there is access to computers and an Internet connection.
Tasks can include content generation for websites and data enrichment such as captioning images and verifying information.

So far Samasource collaborates with 16 work centers throughout Africa, South Asia and Haiti. Since the business began in 2008, Janah says Samasource has paid more than $1 million to more than 1,500 people, many of them women.

Much of the violence inflicted against women, Janah says, stems from their inability to earn an independent income. But when women are given computer-oriented work, Janah says all sorts of benefits follow,

"They start getting respected for their brains rather than their bodies," noted Janah.

Some criticize outsourcing of this sort as a threat to U.S. economic growth. Janah says Samasource is looking for ways to use its technology to help the increasing number of Americans falling below the poverty line. But she says anti-poverty efforts need a more globalized point of view.

"I think it's important to remember that a person is a person, whether it's a poor person in Bangladesh or a poor person in rural Mississippi, each deserves our consideration," noted Janah.

For the future, Janah envisions growing Samasource into a world-class social business, fostering a family of similar enterprises that employ thousands if not millions of otherwise-poor men and women, giving them a dignified way to lift themselves out of poverty.