Fish or Famine? Entrepreneurship as Sustainable Development
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As Confucius’ well-known saying goes: “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” In recent years, foreign donors have been giving Palestinians a lot of fish.

In fact, more foreign aid per capita flows into the Palestinian territory than perhaps any other place on earth. Palestinians now receive billions of dollars a year from foreign taxpayers, including Americans. This aid accounts for nearly one-third of Palestinian GDP.

Certainly, these monies have done much good. They have helped build the infrastructure of a future state while averting humanitarian and security crises—crises that could further destabilize an already volatile region. Yet Israeli security restrictions, as detailed by the World Bank, mean that Palestinians can’t freely move or trade—even between their own cities and towns. Since many of these measures will remain in place until the broader conflict’s resolution, Palestinians will continue to live in a prolonged state of insecurity, unable to build a truly independent and sustainable economy. Turning off the aid could literally leave Palestinians starving in the streets.

But these handouts do not come without their share of problems, in addition to the staggering cost. 

Some argue that flooding the Palestinian territory with foreign cash nurtures a culture of dependence among an otherwise industrious people. Some contend the corruption that often accompanies handouts like these undermines the very policy objectives the donor aid is meant to support. And some suggest that the aid has even had a corrupting effect on the donor governments: sometimes it’s easier to throw a lot of money at a difficult problem than muster the will and expertise to solve it.

In fact, many Palestinians have now started to question whether the prescription is worse than the disease: all of this money ultimately supports the status quo, they argue; what Palestinians really need is an end of conflict. That would allow them to build a real economy of their own, soliciting investment instead of charity.

Realistically, however, ending the conflict may take years. This poses a real challenge for anyone, whether government or individual, who wants to help. Avoiding acute crises in an already unstable region is good. Yet slowly transforming Palestine into a beggar nation, beholden to foreign taxpayers, might create more problems than it fixes.

Three weeks ago, however, I witnessed firsthand something truly inspiring: A possible way to cut this proverbial Gordian knot.

Telos joined the Aspen Institute’s Partners for a New Beginning to lead a delegation of American venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to Palestine. Unlike Telos’ other delegations, which visit both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, this unique delegation focused exclusively on development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Palestine.

While there, we mentored fifteen young Palestinian entrepreneurs from Gaza and the West Bank. These innovators were chosen from more than 400 applicants to be featured in the final stages of an entrepreneurship competition called the “Celebration of Innovation”.

A young woman from Nablus, whose innovations in organic sheep farming and infectious personality earned her a top spot in the competition, captured the hearts and investments of many members of the delegation. A team of energy innovators, lead by a recent graduate from Stanford with a joint degree in physics and international relations, sketched an ambitious but plausible vision: Palestine’s first wind farm, “Independent Wind.”

And a tenacious sophomore from Birzeit University, who partnered with an experienced web developer, was well on her way to improving women’s health throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Her vision—to make quality health advice accessible to women and couples in a region rife with high infant mortality rates—is achievable through new technology. She and her business partner had launched 20 apps, some of which had already earned top slots on the regional iTunes store. Even before their “official” launch, they’ve transformed thousands of lives while building a profitable business to boot.

I quickly became convinced of two things. First, Palestine doesn’t yet have a mature entrepreneurial ecosystem. The support networks with quality mentorship plus the differentiated kinds of investors needed to take a concept from launch to sustainability to scale are nascent, at best. Second, and most importantly, Palestine has all the right stuff. And it has it in abundance.  As Palestinian businessman Zahi Khouri told our delegation: “Diamonds are formed under great pressure. In Palestine, we have many diamonds.”

We found no shortage of Zahi’s diamonds—creative, energetic and shockingly talented youth, often fluent in multiple languages and committed to success despite what might prove insurmountable obstacles for the rest of us. Palestine may be trapped in a seemingly endless conflict. And it may have an artificial economy now dependent on foreign aid. But Palestinians are highly literate, educated, and determined. New technologies are creating new economies and new realities that can bypass checkpoints and barriers. Mining these diamonds—helping Palestinians create real opportunity to succeed on their own—is the challenge.

These ingredients, if properly cultivated, could help inspire a new culture of Palestinian entrepreneurship, in which Palestinian innovators, like their Israeli counterparts, could become a wellspring of great ideas and useful products in a globalized marketplace. Precisely because Palestinians are comfortable with extreme risk might help make Palestine a remarkable entrepreneurial node, providing young Palestinians a good model for how to channel their creativity, frustrations and energies. One day, Palestine could be known for all the good it gives to the world, rather than the charity it receives, or worse.

Nevertheless, this potential will never be fully realized without an end of conflict. Peace will only come when both Israelis and Palestinians claim the security, dignity and freedom that both peoples deserve in equal measure. Helping Palestinians build an entrepreneurial ecosystem will not alone bring Middle East peace. But it could help create a new—and effective—model of sustainable development. Along the way, it could inspire a new breed of homegrown leadership that might guide Palestinians and Israelis to a better time beyond.

I spend much of my time encouraging anyone of goodwill and good heart to engage Israelis and Palestinians—to work tirelessly for the betterment of all. But I always admonish them to tread carefully. Exercise due diligence and only engage responsibly. After all, the best of intentions in the Holy Land sometimes unwittingly end up supporting the most unholy dynamics. Helping to build a Palestinian entrepreneurial ecosystem—or teaching Palestinians to fish—is one way to get involved that will bring much good.

Read more about the delegation and the young entrepreneurs we met in Joshua Walker's "Palestinian 'Diamonds' of Entrepreneurship and Innovation" and Vanessa Zuabi's "The Celebration of Innovation: Building an Ecosystem for Entrepreneurship In Palestine".

Partners for a New Beginning (PNB) is a network working in ten countries where local projects and priorities are identified by local chapters.  PNB strategically matches them with US and international partners. The Aspen Institute serves as the PNB Secretariat and is responsible for driving, expanding and sustaining the PNB network.  The Secretariat maintains communication between stakeholders, identifies strategic partners and brokers partnerships that support project development and expansion.

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners.

Categories: From the desk of..., Faces and Places
Tags: greg khalil, innovation, business, palestine, the aspen institute, us policy, entrepreneurship




Radically Centered highlights a variety of opinions on many important issues having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While worthy of consideration, the individual opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily represent the position of the Telos Group.


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