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From the Desk of Safiya Husain

From the Desk of Safiya Husain

Growing up in Central Asia, at the height of post-soviet nation-building, I quickly learned that large-scale change can only happen with community-inclusive and responsive solutions. Both my parents are humanitarians, my father with NGOs and the WorldBank and my mother with the UN. For my entire childhood I watched them from the sidelines; my mother focusing on gender and peacebuilding, while my father was on the ground responding to droughts, famine, and floods. I saw them lament- why couldn't change be faster and larger? - but keep their faith. My parents taught me two important lessons about the world of development: first, there is no long-term change without systems-change; and second, just because we need systems to change to create sustainable change, doesn't mean we cannot simultaneously attack problems with innovative short-term solutions. Keep the ideal, but don't be afraid to approach it from all directions.

This was the mantra I tried to uphold in my professional life and academic life - but consistently failed. I spent my undergraduate years at Sarah Lawrence College outside of New York City; a small liberal-arts college that pushed me to think about the world in a deconstructed, critical, and post-colonial paradigm. I learned more deeply about cause and effect, on a global and development-oriented scale. I was introduced to the world of applied research and anthropology, pillars that would later become my career foundation. I went into Sarah Lawrence wanting to be an interior designer; I left equipped with critical skills but no direction. I knew I wanted to do something that felt meaningful and impactful - but I didn't know how. After a few failed attempts at entrepreneurship in media and marketing companies - convinced that because I had taken one non-fiction class, I was a prodigal content writer - I went to live in India for the first time.

In India, I was able to reconsider my life and journey. I realized that marketing and content writing were not my strengths, they didn't inspire or motivate me, they were just skills. I was lucky enough to be introduced to my first job at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) in New Delhi, India. 3ie truly opened my eyes to the realities and operations of development organizations. As primarily an evaluation and grant management organization, I learned about the development ecosystem, and crucially understood the importance and centrality of research in both funding and innovation. It was at 3ie that I was finally able to pull all the pieces of myself together, anthropology, the drive to create solutions, and the vision of sustainable impact for communities. This experience led me to pursue my Masters in the field of Evaluation and Applied Research from Claremont Graduate University in California. My time at Claremont taught me two things: first, the importance of the community voice in designing and evaluating any development intervention; and two, the potential for mixed-methods research approaches to facilitate deep learning and ideation.

Since then, most of my work has focused on driving systems-change. I researched the efficacy of nation-wide organizational development frameworks for Panchayat governance with PRADAN, and supported the 2018 iteration of the Iraq United Nations Development Assistance Framework with the UNFPA. After these years in research consulting, in 2019 I decided to join my first NGO, STiR Education, an international organization with the vision of creating a world where teachers love teaching and children love learning, through changing the behaviours and routines of national and state education systems in Uganda, India, Ethiopia and Indonesia. The idea of a pure focus on system's change excited me; and for three years I dedicated myself to this problem. Starting in 2022, I began to remember what my parents told me; don't be afraid to approach it from all directions. Reflecting on my career, I realized I had put all my effort into systems and government change, without thinking about the other angle. I had siloed myself into having one view of development and how the world could be changed.

This all changed when I met Vivek Seshadri, through a research project on teacher metacognition I was conducting alongside Microsoft Research India. It was about three months into our research, we didn't know each other well, but we were talking about our views on development and more broadly how to make research (specifically out research) more inclusive. That's when Vivek said, "have you heard of my start-up Karya?"

Karya, Vivek enthusiastically explained, is trying to create the world's first data cooperatives. Imagine you have data requirements - especially if you're running an AI/ML models - where do you get that data from, how much do you pay for it, and who does the money go to? This is where I learned about the data generation and sales ecosystem, and the potential to include India's rural and underemployed communities. Karya sounded like a breath of fresh air, a young group of visionaries with radical ideas and the energy and will-power to test them. A few weeks after our initial discussion, Vivek connected me to Manu Chopra, Karya's other Co-Founder. Four days later, I began working with Karya as their Head of Research and Social Mobility, and Grants Lead.

Karya's aim is to create a sustainable digital work economy for rural and economically disadvantaged Indians by giving them pathways out of poverty. Karya takes a community-based approach, giving the most disadvantaged members in a community the autonomy and independence to take control over their lives through making critical income. Guided by the ideals of Muhammad Yunus, someone dear to my ideals, Karya tries every day to be the most conscious and socially aware it can be. Open to learning and being guided by mistakes, Karya has one key goal - to improve the lives of the communities we work with, ensuring that all of our projects and interventions go towards maximizing their wages and improving their livelihoods.

As the Head of Research and Social Mobility at Karya, my job is two-fold and interconnected. Ultimately, my goal is to identify various avenues for Karya workers to gain sustainable economic empowerment through engagement with our platform. This means researching and creating multiple pathways for social mobility: through financial sustainability, through career development, and through education. Karya has given me the opportunity to be a true applied researcher - to use my analytical and anthropological skills to iterate and adapt interventions and their designs, to ensure that community voices and needs are truly being heard.

Currently, at Karya, I am engaging in two exciting research projects. The first is with Udhyam Learning Foundation where we are deploying the first iteration of our learn-to-earn model. We are sharing their entrepreneurship curriculum with 10,000 workers in rural India through our mobile application; workers go through the curriculum by reading the content out-loud and answering periodic check-for-understanding questions. After attaining a minimum pass score of 80%, workers are given INR 5,000 for their work and learning, no strings attached. These individuals are then studied over the next 1 year to understand their usage of the funds, social impact, and areas for potential programmatic expansion. The second is with Meitra Hospitals in Kozhikode where we are training the local community to collect and interpret key data to help with flood mitigation and related water and vector-borne disease prevention.

At only one year old, the future for Karya is bright and exciting. Karya is a large shift for me in both the way I have historically worked, as well as the problems I have worked on. Moving away from only-systems change feels like the right course for me. Problems can be solved from all angles, sometimes it's important to deal with the immediate first before going up to the systems and policy level. What I've grown to love about Karya is the insistence to do everything together and with equal importance.

I envision Karya to be a true pace-setter for development organizations. We are innovative and willing to think about problems from all directions. While one year ago, Karya started by giving critical supplementary income for AI/ML dataset generation, today they are at the forefront of data ethics. In the next year we are planning to launch the first Ethical Data Collective, an opportunity for us to bring together technology companies, governments and data worker communities to collectively set the standards for ethical data generation, use and licensing. In a world where data is increasingly becoming our most important and lucrative commodity, someone needs to be at the helm of ensuring the right ecosystem is established and nurtured.

Over the next 10 years, I imagine Karya becoming India's digital Amul. Karya will be a household name; synonymous with offering sustainable career change pathways along with opportunities for addressing more immediate supplementary income. Karya will not only create new jobs and careers, but simultaneously change the fabric and outlook of the communities we work with. Through Karya, India's rural communities will gain knowledge about social issues such as gender-based violence, caste-based discrimination and reproductive health; they will gain education in areas such as natural farming, entrepreneurship and climate mitigation; and most importantly they will gain the foundation required to sustainably improve their livelihoods in a dignified and empowered way.

Karya's model and the dedication of the team to center the communities we work with is unique and inspiring. Despite only having worked at Karya for a short while, I see the potential for this idea to genuinely and sustainably put most Indians on the pathway out of poverty. Karya possesses a palpable and infectious energy to continuously do good and be better. At Karya, I finally see the potential to create real impact without being beholden to the typically slow process of non-profit interventions. For the first time in my life, my organization's goals seem relevant, impactful and achievable; and I understand how I fit into the bigger picture of change. The first day I joined Karya, Manu said to me, our goal is to reach 100 million Indians by 2030. Two months in, I have no reason to doubt our vision - together, we will shape the ethical data ecosystem and aim to transform the livelihoods of every community and individual in need.