After I put up yesterday’s post about the program that Samasource is running in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, reader (and intrepid boy reporter) Nick commented, expressing doubt about whether the project had actually gotten off the ground:
“Turns out the Samasource press release was premature and the innovative partnership is a total dud. I looked into this for a story and was told by CARE that the project never got off the ground because Samasource and CARE could not come to an agreement on how to do it. In the words of a CARE spokesman: “Negotiations were
initiated but not completed, so there’s no ongoing project to see.”
That surprised me. The Samasource website seemed fairly up to date, and the press release was from last July. So if the project wasn’t actually happening yet, one would think that would have been mentioned by now, no?
Luckily, it sounds like it was our concerns that were premature, not Samasource’s press release. I called and spoke to Leila Chirayath Janah, Samasource’s founder, who assuaged my concerns. “While we are still in negotiations on a formal partnership with CARE,” she explained, “we have already started working with 16 refugees since July, independently of care.” Their website actually offers profiles of the Dadaab workers, which can be seen here. (I’m guessing that there’s a glitch in the “income earned” information, though -it seems unlikely that every worker has earned exactly $3.13.)
CARE maintains the computer labs that the refugee workers are using, and also selected the refugees who are participating in the project. They’re also selecting the next group of 16, who will begin training later this month. Samasource provides program training, and client relationships, but not infrastructure, so the program will only be able to reach its full capacity if more computers are added in the camps. (Currently, there are ten computers in each of the two labs.) Samasource recently got a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that should allow them to expand the program and add 50-100 more workers in the spring of 2010, if there are enough computers by then.
Jaded aid workers who think no one reads your reports, take heart: Leila told me she was inspired to begin working in the Dadaab camp after reading an Oxfam report that highlighted the lack of livelihood opportunities for refugees there. She visited the camp, and was struck by the overwhelming feeling that “this place is hopeless,” and that “the refugees were essentially trapped there.” Most are Somali, and so cannot safely return home. The Kenyan government requires them to remain inside the camp, (originally built to house 90,000 people, it now holds 280,000), which denies them access to jobs, trade with the outside world, and independence. That forces the refugees to be dependent on outside aid, leaving them vulnerable to the capriciousness of international donors. To deny refugees the opportunity to work and achieve independence, Leila felt, was to deprive them of “a basic dignity in life.”
Leila learned that CARE was running livelihood projects in the camp, but she found that they were not being “technology innovators.” CARE’s projects focused on traditional jobs that required significant physical inputs, such as ice-making (requires water), and butchery (requires cows.) Others, like making baskets for export, required not only physical inputs, but also transportation infrastructure for shipping, and access to foreign markets and buyers. Those weren’t available.
However, the report also mentioned that a donor had installed two computer labs in the camp, and that young women were using them for online university work. Leila reasoned that anyone skilled enough to do university coursework would also be able to handle the jobs that her organization outsources, and so decided to set up a project there. She contacted CARE and offered to set up a pilot program at no cost to them, or even to help pay for the upkeep of the computer labs. Eventually (after she and an Stanford MBA student intern flew to Kenya in person) CARE agreed, and the pilot program began. The refugees are now working, and will receive their wages directly. (The money won’t be going to fund the program, or into a generalized pool, or be given as in-kind goods: this is a job.) They will make between $1 and $2.50 per hour, depending on the speed with which they can complete the online tasks. Other refugee workers in the camp make about $0.50 to $1 per day, if they can find work at all.
So for now, I’m sticking with my initial “this seems cool” reaction, and assuming that CARE’s statement to Nick was the result of some kind of communications breakdown. I called CARE myself to ask for more information, and a very nice media officer has promised that someone will get back to me soon. I’ll post about their response when I get it.