Regina Saphier: Weapons of Mass Construction: Leila Janah’s Samasource

Regina Saphier: Weapons of Mass Construction: Leila Janah’s Samasource

We arrived in a new era, when america deploys “weapons of mass construction” in international social and economic development. Development work and nation building now could come without wars at the beginning of the process, and we could witness “individual citizen building”, instead of “post-war rebuilding of infrastructure”. Let me show you the woman who made my subconscious come up with my blog title very suddenly. Leila is a true lady, a first generation american. She is highly intelligent, courageous, diligent, humble, and a great speaker. She is a maven. By the way she is also beautiful and she is using this natural gift to promote her cause in a charming and elegant manner. She is a people’s person with a mission.

Jet-setting social entrepreneur Leila Janah is SOREL’s face for the Get Your Boots Dirty campaign

When I first read about Samasource that Leila Janah created, I knew that it was something brilliant, as important as Khan Academy or Coursera. In fact I see these types of initiatives as parts of an emerging global system. Leila tells her story beautifully, so instead of writing it down for you, I recommend, that you click and watch her narrative online (skip the first 10 minutes and go to Leila’s talk directly). What I want to talk about is my reaction to her approach.

First let me tell you what Salman Khan spoke about at TED 2014 (All-Stars Session 3: Where Are We Now?). I have been writing TED live conference blogs for years, but this year I much rather write essays about many other things, like Leila’s story. However, what the founder of Khan Academy mentioned at TED 2014 in Vancouver is relevant to Leila’s work. Salman reminded the audience that 400 years ago only 10-15% of the western European population could read (that was at the time the most literate region of the world). If you asked those literate ones: “what percentage of the entire population would be capable of reading”, they would have responded that “if you had a really good education system, perhaps 30-40% would be intellectually capable of learning to read”. But today we know that the answer is closer to 100% (my note: of course not counting people with severe cognitive and physical developmental issues, but hopefully science in the future will be able to help us prevent or heal such illnesses). Salman went on asking: What percentage of people are capable of novel research, understand genetics, computer science, or robotics?  You would get an answer, like 5 or 10 or 15%… but what if that answer is actually a 100%? He believes that during the next 50 years we will see that this is true and go even beyond what we could imagine today. For that we must turn quality education into a fundamental human right. I completely agree with Salman. I believe if we go from educating people to letting people learn on a global scale in ways that fit their learning styles and achieved level of understanding, we will see a much better world in general.


What is Leila up to?

She created Samasource to provide acceptable “Microwork” to people globally who are otherwise earning less than 2 dollars a day with jobs destroying their dignity (like getting a dollar a day to protest for a politician… slave like conditions). By giving work and so income, she wishes to give opportunity and dignity to poor people. Her non-profit organization has a self developed software background managing the digital work process. Initially she could not find funding, because donors would not believe her that poor people in Africa would be able to do accurate digital work via a computer and the internet.

This is why I added Salman Khan’s relevant ideas from the TED 2014 stage above. Shockingly even the most educated live under the false impression that poor people are mentally retarded. And those “western” people think of themselves as enlightened? How tragic is that!? In many ways we live in the “Dark Ages” today.

Leila was able to demonstrate that many poor people in african countries are fluent in English and are perfectly capable of completing data entry, and data & image review tasks (when personal project management is taken out of the equation). Plus, people are obviously able to learn and complete even more complex tasks! Samasource is able to break the tasks down into highly and easily manageable tasks for entry level digital workers. In developing countries where there are no jobs, young people, especially women are now able to work via Samasource for companies like LinkedIn and Google, earn money and support their families and their own education. There is also SAMAUSA, for low income community college students in the US, directed by my fellow Columbia University alumna: Tess Gilman Posner.

In a way I hear Leila tell people to make global work opportunities and earning a basic income a fundamental human right. So, today we must think of clean water, healthy food, safe shelter, health, appropriate work/income, and quality education as basic human rights. These should be our goals to achieve for everyone. If you think about it, at this rate, one day sufficiently challenging intellectual activities, a basic income that sustains us beyond the basics, or a healthy body and mind will be fundamental human rights. We have a long way to go, but some of us are already able to envision and explain this future. Some of us are able to imagine it. Some are already building that future. 

We need Samasource in Hungary and in Europe too

Now that is what jump-started my phantasy. As I described on my blog about Coursera over a year ago, I feel that Hungary (where I live) is not really a developed country. This is a country of 10 million and over 3 million people live in poverty. Every few weeks I walk into a small grocery store nearby (in an upscale neighborhood) and have a nice chat with a young and intelligent woman there. She is roma (a visible minority in a racist country), she completed high school where she studied English too, but has to spend her life selling fruits and vegetables on a low wage away from her family and has no hope for further education and a better income. She is alway nice to customers, she tells you when something is not fresh enough for you to pay for, and she gives recipes. She is doing her job really well, and at the same time she is bright and curious about the world. I like that she is so good at what she is doing, it is good for me as a customer, but at the same time I feel frustrated that she does not have opportunities to grow, to learn, and to have a better quality of life. (In fact in this country it is also true for many middle class intellectuals… even those people would need Samasource to help them become skilled digital and global income generators!)

I keep telling her about the online learning opportunities: Coursera and Khan Academy, TED and things like that, but she has to spend her days in a small shop alone with no internet access (I know that at home she does have internet). I keep thinking how she could get an education and a job that would move her beyond this stage in a country where the economy is not doing well and most people (especially the digital immigrants who are older) don’t speak English, and a large number of high school graduates are jobless (even when they speak English and have computer skills). At this point 5% of Hungarian citizens live and work in more developed countries and send home over 500 billion Forints a year (the top three source countries are Germany, the USA and Canada). So, if Leila’s motto is this: “Give Work“… My motto is this: “Send Work” or “Donate Work“. It would be interesting to gather expats online and explain to them how important it would be to “send work”, beyond sending money. Where there is sufficient work to let expats live, save and send money home, there most be enough work opportunities too to “send home”… One possibility is for expats (from less developed countries) to get in touch with their employers at the leadership level and motivate them to partner with Samasource and channel work into their own country of origin.

Missing jobs, hidden tasks, online work

As I kept waiting for a Coursera like initiative for years, I have also been waiting for global and online work opportunities for anyone, including myself, because most local jobs here just don’t require brains, skills, knowledge and creativity, and women are not likely to be employed at the highest levels of leadership in Hungary. So, jobs are missing here on every possible level… while technology is also destroying more and more human jobs on a global scale. A major for profit initiative that I noticed as possibly useful to me and to people like me in the future is the Google Helpout service, but it has yet to reach its full potential among the educated middle class globally. (Unfortunately, this service was discontinued in 2015.)

Possible surfaces that could become sources of work and income from Hungary via the internet in the future are: FlexJobs, oDesk and Elance. (Since 2015 oDesk and Elance are one brand, called Upwork.) Samasource, a non-profit organization, is the income generating channel for the lower classes, globally, and it is growing. SAMAUSA in fact does train its microworkers to use TaskRabbit and Upwork.

As I quickly mentioned before in one of my blogs, I have an elaborate flow chart with all the possible components that could change the education and work related mindset of leaders in Hungary when it comes to young people’s goal setting, but since politics is so ugly and shortsighted in Hungary, I do not yet see anyone to actually talk to with the feeling that anything good would come out of a discussion. When I was Leila’s age, I was much more optimistic and idealistic. Today I am more of a realist, but I am still able to maintain an idealistic narrative, so I am still generally optimistic. The difference between Leila’s attitudes and my attitudes is not related to age, it is related to geographical location, networks, the culture embedded in those networks and day-to-day experiences. When I returned to Hungary from the US in 2002, I had her energy. Nowadays I am an indirect leader via my blogs, but it would be nice to reawaken that dormant direct leader in me, in a more mature and more experienced incarnation. The inspiration is there.

Unconditional income?

Now that the election is coming up in Hungary, some politicians mentioned the “unconditional basic income for all” idea. And while I believe that technology one day should make this possible, by generating enough profits, goods and services, I also believe that today it is still important for people to feel needed, to do something, to have a reason to develop skills and to have goals (will be still important for a long time). These are basic components needed for mental health, social acceptance and survival. Millions of people are being judged for not having a job and not earning money even when there are clearly no jobs for them. It is clearly victim blaming, a form of abuse. Also, due to the shrinking economy, our GDP or more importantly our GNI won’t be able to cover the cost of an unconditional basic income for all in Hungary. On top of it, why would we want rich people (with a lot of income and assets) also get the unconditional basic income? I feel it is morally wrong! If you have a lot, give a lot, and don’t use community resources if you do not need them, especially when others desperately do need those resources. At the same time I dislike aid (much of it appears to get stolen) and I would prefer people getting their income based on different kinds of tasks or jobs completed. Perhaps we need “unconditional basic work” that generates income, but still permits growth, learning and self actualization (depending on the person’s capacity and health). What we must keep in mind is that people should not get stuck in one mindless position, there should be perspective in the process.

My example for turning “volunteer work” into “donated work” and so into “basic income” for skilled and jobless people

For example, why not make it possible for the best TED talk translators, reviewers and transcribers (or even TEDx volunteers) to earn money with their volunteer work? I imagine an opt in program, where a question would pop up during the OTP registration or before starting a new subtitle translation: “Would you like to earn money with your TED volunteer work?” And people with no income, no jobs, but good language skills and top work ethic could make money this way to pay for food, accommodation and utilities. When you start earning good money some other way, you could graciously opt out as a volunteer who earns money to permit others to get your money, and you could opt in as a volunteer and/or a donor. Those who are donors could indicate that their donations are supposed to sponsor excellent volunteers in need. Now that the super rich are giving their money to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to actually and measurably solve problems in the world, I believe that giving income generating work to TED volunteers would be money well spent on people spreading good ideas in dozens of languages. It is a form of global teaching.

Picture this!

So, I imagined the young roma woman (in the small store nearby) starting to work online from home via Samasource Hungary (yet to be created… it could be similar to SAMAUSA)… I imagined her English developing while working and reviewing English social media surfaces for example for a social media monitoring service called Venuelabs (an actual Samasource partner), or entering university transcript data for Degreed (a possible SamaUSA partner), and gradually she could transition into an online education program in English and for freeInternationally educated people like me could train her. This woman, soon with experience in technology, and with better English, and with top Coursera and other courses on her LinkedIn profile could be employed indirectly (on the job market) by the next, yet to be created project Samasource would license to global partners or she could find direct employment with local companies… Samasource will grow and redefine itself as its customers, partners and supporters become more diverseThe possibilities are endless. We definitely need to find jobs for jobless high school and college graduates within Hungary, the European Union and beyond. We also need to give a way out of poverty and a way into the world of learning and self improvement.

This blog post reminds me of a dream of mine: I observed people floating in an upward spiral lifting each other up one-by-one, hand-in-hand. If we would take the responsibility for just one person who is less fortunate but willing to grow, and lift that person just a little bit higher, our lives would literally be more uplifting.


TED and TEDx video subtitling could be a source of independent and global micro income

for the educated and the skilled during hard times (even retroactively)





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