Fast Company - October 14, 2010
The Clinton Global Initiative and Qatar Foundation International (QFI) have a unique idea for bridging the American-Arabic cultural gap: An online project aimed at bringing American and Qatari teenagers together through crowdsourced translation exercises.
Entitled YALLAH (Youth Allied to Learn, Lead and Help), the program launched on October 1 with a crowdsourced website open to more than 150 participants, all teenage alumni of the QFI's prior exchange, culture and study abroad programs. Non-profits, of course, love acronyms for their programs; “yallah” means “let's go” or “hurry up” in Arabic.
On the website, QFI alumni participate in both independent and moderator-steered conversations on cultural topics, their encounters with each other in Qatar and the United States, their societies and current news. But the most interesting factor is how they interact with each other -- each side writes in their native language and site participants translate their mutual conversations through machine-aided crowdsourcing.
San Francisco-based non-profit Meedan is responsible for the translation mechanism. The idea is quite simple: English and Arabic writing are automatically translated into the other respective language via computer. Once the automatic translation is complete, site participants restructure the translation for coherence and readability. Arabic is an infamously hard language for machine translation into English due to its complex morphology, stem system and sentence structures that vary significantly from Indo-European tongues.
Meedan is best known for their news sharing project, where professional journalists and academians translate articles from English-language and Arabic-language publications for each other. According to Meedan CEO Ed Bice, YALLAH uses the same translation mechanism as the main Meedan site. The Clinton Initiative also helped connect QFI with TakingIT Global, a Toronto-based “social networking site for socially-engaged youth leaders” that is providing eseminar services.
QFI executive director Maggie Mitchell Salem noted that the project is running on the American side with a high level of autonomy and that a translation project for teenagers was chosen because, in her words, “interactions between adults made the kids (ex-exchange participants) think they could do better.” The YALLAH project was the brainchild of two QFI exchange alumni, Damon Mallory and Fahad al-Nahdi. According to QFI, Mallory and al-Nahdi approached the organization with a proposal shortly after participating in a Spring 2010 program and secured funding several months later.
QFI, which funds YALLAH, is headed by Sheikh Jassim Bin Abdulaziz Bin Jassim al-Thani. Al-Thani is a member of the Qatari royal family in his thirties best known as as a member of the supervisory board of carmakers Porsche. QFI's board includes Citigroup chairman emeritus Sandy Weill and Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian. Although independent of the Qatar government, QFI has numerous ties to the emirate's power structure.
The Clinton Global Initiative, founded by former President Bill Clinton, nominated YALLAH as one of their 2010 Commitments to Action. While no funding is provided by Clinton, the Initiative provides logistical support and monitors the benchmarks of nominees.
For QFI and the Qatari government, the program is a stroke of public diplomacy genius. Qatar is a small emirate surrounded by much larger neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Qatari foreign policy has consisted of walking on eggshells between American and Iranian interests, while attempting to assert the country's presence on the international stage.
The Qatar Foundation, QFI's founding donor, helped arrange for Education City, a massive collection of overseas campuses for American universities including Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon, to open in Doha. Most importantly, Qatar is the home of the Al Jazeera television network. Al Jazeera maintains unclear business and ideological ties to the Qatari government and royal family, and has played a major part in Qatari public diplomacy.
Projects such as YALLAH also indicate new paths for public diplomacy through social media. Maintaining a message board, offering a translation mechanism and instituting benchmarks to keep American and Qatari teens talking costs QFI relatively little. Participants on both sides come from demographics that are likely to be future influencers: it is not every American teenager who is able to travel to Qatar and not every resident of Qatar can travel to America.
For QFI, apart from the very desirable philanthropic benefits, it means a low-cost way of connecting future American and Qatari influencers with each other. That's not a bad public diplomacy idea at all.