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Hope for Haiti's Unemployed

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Great ideas always come out of MIT. This one isn't any different. Konbit is a service that allows anyone to call a phone number in Haiti toll-free and through easily understood Creole prompts, recorded by Haitian radio personality Bob Lemoine, answer questions as to what skills he or she may have that can be utilized by a potential employer.

With high unemployment rates and a large portion of the population illiterate, Konbit founders, Aaron Zinman and Greg Elliot realized these devastating statistics in Haiti were not going to change anytime soon, (high figures had existed even before the earthquake) so they needed to design a service that took these factors into consideration.

These are a few transcripts of Haitians answering questions on the Konbit system. It is currently in trial with over 3,000 Haitians and ready to be fully operational and begin matching the unemployed with the employed - a service desperately needed in Haiti.

Prompt Question: "Tell us about your experience with counseling"

Response One: "After January 12th, I gave myself a job which is 'talk to people who have lost an arm or a leg', 'tell them stories to make them laugh a little bit', 'tell them that life is not over.' I did not go to school to learn to do these things but I think it is a gift from GOD."

Response Two: "I gave my advise in my area, I speak with the young people concerning the bad environment that we live."

Response Three: "I'm the president of my neighborhood committee. I'm always advising the people on how they can protect themselves from cholera."

Prompt Question: "Tell us about your experience with languages"

Response One: "Before going to nursing school I used to translate for a hospital, prison and court.

You can listen some of the responses below as well as hear the PSA being played in Haiti - all in Creole:

Konbit audio by Amanda Lin Costa

My interview with Aaron Zinman and Greg Elliot of KONBIT:


Tell me a little about how you brainstormed this idea? And what does "KONBIT" mean or stand for?

Konbit is a Haitian concept of a form of communal labor where people exchange their skills for the greater good. After the Earthquake, MIT put together a class that tasked us to find where technology could help the Haitian population.

The class was very political and we kept hearing how NGOs, the predominant labor force in Haiti, would import their own workers from outside the country rather than hiring locally. Given the chaotic situation on the ground, we determined that we could create a system that would index the skill sets of residents to combat this problem. The key challenges are high illiteracy rates (50%+), a large population that was unemployed before the earthquake (70%+), and little access to the Internet and computers.

However, mobile penetration is very high in Haiti and most have access or know someone with access to a mobile phone. We therefore devised an automated system that Haitians can call and tell about their life experiences in a conversational question and answer format. We translate these live experiences into employable skills. NGOs and other employers can search our system online by location in both English and Creole.


Explain this concept of "life skills" versus "resume skills."

When you have a country that had very high unemployement before the earthquake, the traditional resume does not apply as well. There isn't anything to write if you have never had a job and it's very difficult to create the resume if you are illiterate. But just because you have never had a job does not mean you do not have any skills.

A person may have cared for their sick mother for 5 years and learned basic nursing skills in the process, but they may not have reported these skills using a traditional resume format. Our job is to collect these kinds of experiences and translate them into a form that is useful for employers.

Did you know you wanted to implement this in Haiti when you developed it or did you/do you, see it as fulfilling a need in many nations? Have you spent time in Haiti or are you intending on visiting?

We were inspired to build this project as a result of the disaster in Haiti on January 12, but have since begun to look at how the project can generalize to help in rebuilding all areas, including areas like Chile, South Africa, and even Detroit. We worked hard to make sure the system was as cheap and fully-automated as possible so that it could be rolled out quickly when needed in new areas.

We have been planning to visit Haiti for over 6 months now, but it has not made sense yet. We will go when we need to connect the right organizations to improve the project and increase its scale. That may be soon as we have begun deployment.


I'm not very technical, but I assume by making this an "open source" project this means anyone can start this program where they see a similar need? Can you explain this concept of "open source" in layman's terms?

Open source means the blueprints to our technology are available for free on the Internet for anyone to take, replicate, or modify. Others may replicate our system exactly (the least amount of work), or may modify it to suit their needs (more work).

We built a generalized question & answer system that interfaces disconnected populations using voice over the phone and makes their information available online. We think that is useful in many situations, disaster response and otherwise, and do very much hope others build off the fruits of our labor.

I assume this relies heavily on the phone service provider offering to donate their services? What are the other costs involved? Is there a way for KONBIT to become self-sufficient financially as a service or will it always rely on donations/grants? IE - like other employment services/sites, a percentage of money is received for making the connection, would this be in the future?

We have worked very hard to keep Konbit automated and as cost effective as possible. We believe we have done well in that regard, having only spent $8,000USD to achieve a 3,000 person trial in Haiti. Moving forward we will revise the system to be less dependent on voice messages that need translation - the most expensive part of the system.

There may be ways for Konbit to become a for-profit system, which is a direction we think is necessary to truly become self-sufficient. Currently, Konbit is free for all parties. If we are to turn it into a for-profit venture, it would only be in the hands of Haitians who think they are capable of successfully transitioning the product.

It is a chronic problem that workers are brought in from other countries and that actual citizens find themselves becoming further and further disconnected from participating in the rebuilding of their own nation. What are your experiences with that in Haiti? How do you see a service like Konbit solving this?

Our experience has been to focus on reaching out to the most disconnected: those who are illiterate, unemployed, and/or homeless. While it is not always the case that workers are brought in from other countries - Partners-in-Health has been in Haiti for over 25 years and has a strong network of Haitian workers - we wanted to at least make it as easy as possible for organizations to find local labor.

We do this by creating a cultural and technological bridge between Haitians and employers:
First, the entire system is in Creole to appeal to the widest audience (French is only spoken by the elite 5% of the country).

Second, the system is phone-based rather than web-based, allowing it to be used by the majority that have access to an ordinary cellphone.

Third, by asking callers to leave open-ended voicemail messages about their life experiences, we do not limit skills to job history as the unemployment rate in Haiti was 80% before the disaster.

By focusing on life experiences, we can extract additional skills and likely candidates for training.

Utilizing phone technology is smart in a country with high illiteracy rates. How much of Haiti's population is illiterate?

UNICEF estimates adult literacy at 62%, and UNESCO at 54.8%. These figures very widely, but it is clear that a large portion of the population is not literate.

I'm fascinated by the fact that information compiled through the Konbit database can offer up insights into where and what skills are lacking in certain areas. I think you mentioned plans you have of utilizing this information? Would it be to help with improvements in the educations system in Haiti?

It would be very useful to create a representative census of skills across Haiti. That information would make it easier for outside investors to assess the risk of creating businesses and factories in Haiti, as well as aid companies in understanding what skills can be found locally and do not need to be imported.

It could be helpful with understanding the impact of the education system, but it does not address the fundamental reasons why all Haitians do not receive advanced educations.


You are running PSAs on the radio to reach Haitian and let them know about the service Konbit offers. Why did you decide to do that and what other ways are you reaching out to Haitians to inform them of the service?

Radio is one of the main ways to reach Haitians. Radios are ubiquitous, can be run on batteries, and are inexpensive. It is the primary way in which we are reaching out to Haitians in Haiti. We are also working with local churches, and trying to publicize in the American & Haitian-American press to gain awareness via the diaspora.

It is a year since the earthquake, can you share some insights into what you've seen that is working to rebuilt Haiti and what you think isn't and could be improved?

We see an inspiring motivation to collaborate and help a country in need, where several organizations from all over have put aside competitive differences to share data, ideas, and work for the greater good. That said, we'd like to see more organizations follow this path.

Even more amazing, however, is the strong sense of pride and hope we see in many Haitian-Americans and Haitians in Port-au-Prince. While at the State Department in Washington DC during the Haiti Tech @ State meetup, we spoke with a Haitian American who told us (to paraphrase): "I don't like when people say they want to rebuild Haiti - it was never fully built in the first place. We need to be our own people and be self-sufficient. We're not just rebuilding Haiti, we're building it."

That said, there's a disturbing amount of donated money that is not being spent properly. We see quite a few organizations that are good at raising money, but aren't very good at taking action with it. We've been able to build this system for under $10,000, which is pocket-change compared to the amount of money pledged. We would like to see more training that helps Haitians become self-sufficient rather than stop-gap solutions that do not lead to generative changes.

Konbit need volunteers to transcribe the Creole into English and other languages. If you are able to help please contact them at: http://konbit.media.mit.edu/translate

NGOs or any organization or individual wishing to utilize Konbit's service should contact them directly at konbit@media.mit.edu

If you are a Haitian seeking employment call the toll-free number: 5656 in Haiti, or +509 37031042 from abroad or visit the website: http://konbit.media.mit.edu/