This week’s prompt allowed me to discover an intriguing business concept as well as its leader – Samasource, founded and led by Leila Janah. Samasource works as a go-between for a company that needs some sort of technological work and a woman, youth, or refugee living in poverty. Essentially, Samasource intends to end poverty by providing the underprivileged with jobs, and therefore, an income. Well, duh, you might think – not exactly a novel concept when you get right down to it. Yet Samasource has found a clever and productive way to go about its mission.
Samasource was founded in 2008 by Janah, an ’05 graduate of Harvard University and prior consultant to the World Bank, as her response to her field work across Africa and a passion for social change. Put in her own words from an interview with FastCompany, “The best way to end poverty is to simply give people work, which isn’t considered ‘sexy’ among donors who want to fund a preschool or cure a disease”. The article goes on to explain how Janah views her organization as a “marriage between Silicon Valley technology and poor people”, creating the interest and attraction for interested clients of Samasource.
These interested clients are seeking some sort of computer-based work, whether it is design of websites or projects, data enrichment, or transcription of text, audio, or video. Simply put, Samasource promises to assist in whatever kind of technological assistance you might need. Your project is sent through a revolutionary technology platform dubbed the SamaHub, which breaks down your project into a series of smaller tasks called “microwork”, a term created by Janah herself. From there, each task is sent to a “Service Partner”, which is a nonprofit organization, grassroots business, or educational institution that is based on working with people living in poverty. As a BGS student, this made me nervous. After all, that has so much potential to go so very wrong! How do you know that the Service Partner is going to enforce proper results? Or that they will pay their employees fairly?
Fear not. Samasource’s social mission holds each Service Partner to a tough range of criterion, including (but not limited to) paying workers a fair living wage (as defined by the Fair Wage Guide for each country that they operate within), “substantial investments” in worker training and development, and regularly conducting impact surveys and studies. From there, the completed microwork returns to Samasource, where a team of quality control employees carefully review the work, before compiling the work and sending the completed project.
Is it charity? Janah replies with an emphatic no. “I really don’t like charity. I think charity does a disservice to the people that it tries to help… 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.” (Taken from an interview with VOA News last December.) She even explains that Samasource’s work helps to end the problem of violence against women, as much of the violence against women (as Janah explains) stems from their inability to earn an independent income. When they can earn a living, they “start getting respected for their brains instead of their bodies”.
I don’t mean to digress here, but I have studied violence against women extensively. During my semester abroad with Semester at Sea, I was able to study this very subject on a global level under Dr. Carolyn Smith, a well-known research on domestic violence. I saw, first-hand, the very real causes and effects of domestic violence in countries such as Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, India, Vietnam, and Taiwan. This is an extremely complicated subject, and saying that the cause of domestic violence is because of a woman’s ability to earn an independent income is pretty narrow-minded. In actuality, tradition, power, and social classes are the main contributors. Recently, social change (usually linked to pushes for gender equality) creates fear of losing masculinity (called machismo, generally viewed as a sexist view that masculinity is better than femininity, and highly linked to aggression), which in turn causes men to try to assert their masculinity in increasingly aggressive ways. Unfortunately, this often leads to domestic violence.
So while I’m not sure that Samasource is making strides in decreasing violence against women, I will agree that it is making strides in ending poverty. Samasource has 16 worker centers across South Asia, East Africa, and the Carribean, with over 2,000 workers amongst these centers. They certainly have an impressive list of clients; Google, LinkedIn, ETS, and Intuit are just some of the big players in a list of 75 clients. According to their FAQ, Samasource has raised over $3 million in funding from a host of corporations, including Rockefeller, Ford, Ebay, Google, Cisco, Stanford, and even the US State Department. Since the company began, they have reportedly paid out over $1 million to over 1,500 people, many of them women.
Additionally, I really appreciate the entire company (not just Janah)’s view that people, regardless of their poverty status, are still people; all are equally capable of intelligent work. As they explain, “We believe work is at the core of human dignity, and everyone deserves a chance.” Poverty level does not indicate intelligence or education level, although that is certainly a pervasive stereotype. And I certainly agree that the way to end poverty is not through endless charitable donations. After all, those are one-time gifts, while a job will continue to give. Even if the individual job ends, at least the worker now has contacts to network and experience to add to a resume.
I think this is an important lesson to learn for our class. We tend to view “ethical” companies as ones that have strong philanthropic ties; Google, for example, donated $1.5 million to Samasource late last year, and we know that Google has a strong charitable history. But what about long-term? Can Google continue to give millions each year to every worthwhile charity? We run into this problem when trying to assist the victims of natural disasters. Aid relief pours in for months afterwards, but when it trickles away, victims are left without the aid that really matters – long-term help. Years later, victims of Hurricane Katrina are still displaced and/or living in FEMA trailers, victims of the Haitian earthquake are still homeless and unable to rebuild their lives. The answers we really need are long-term solutions. This also links to our studies of consequentalism. We must think of the long-term consequences of our actions, not just short-term. As we have seen, the short-term focus on profits has led to a lot of long-term issues – Enron, anyone?
I applaud Samasource for trying their best to help the less privileged in a permanent, long-term way. I believe that what they are doing will really make a difference in the fight against poverty, even if they are only one company with a limited range of influence. Hopefully, other corporations will realize the strength behind Samasource’s work, and start doing the same.
PS – Janah is a famous public speaker on technology and social innovation. I’d love to see her here for the Tech/no series, wouldn’t you?