The idea that Israel has an important role to play in the developing world, is by no means a new idea, in fact it can be traced as far back as 1902, long before the establishment of the state when Theodor Herzl, in his book Alteneuland, envisioned that the struggle for “the redemption of the Africans” would eventually become the continuation of the struggle for the “redemption of the Jews.”
The idea of the Jewish State playing an important role in the developing world found expression among Israel’s founders where already David Ben Gurion spoke about Israel’s ‘moral duty’ to the rest of the world and, in the 1950s, Golda Meir began establishing close relationships with many developing countries. MASHAV, the Centre for International Cooperation, a department within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was founded in 1958 and in the early years of Statehood Israel had more embassies in Africa than all countries other than France.
Initially there was both strong ideological and political rationale for this cooperation, which was seen as a vehicle for Israeli “soft power” and gaining support for the fledgling Jewish state from many of the new voting members of the United Nations. Furthermore, economically, the developing world was seen to offer important markets for Israeli goods and African leaders looked to Israel as a supporter of decolonization and an important source of technical support.
Initially these efforts paid off, Israel enjoyed a period of close diplomatic ties with Africa and during the late 1950’s and 60’s Israel enjoyed relative support at the UN and other international forum. However, the situation changed drastically in the 70’s when 27 of the then 33 African states severed relations with Israel following the Yom Kippur War. This had severe implications for Israel’s official development assistance which has never quite recovered. Over the years MASHAV’s operations have been considerably downscaled. Between 1959-60 the MASHAV budget comprised of approximately 34% of the total MFA budget, today it stands at only 3%.
Given this political context Israel’s engagement with the developing world has in the past been somewhat tenuous. While Israel has made some important contributions, for example in fields such as agriculture where for years Israeli invented drip irrigation has been increasing crop yields or by sending water, infrastructure and medical experts to developing countries, these contributions have often been in spite of significant political obstacles. However, a shift is underway in international development discourse which suggests that Israel’s greatest contributions are yet to be seen.
On an ideological and political level we have seen the notion of Tikkun Olam or “repairing the world”, which has become an important mantra for encouraging Israeli assistance to the developing world. This concept, which became popular in liberal Jewish communities during the past decade, has in recent years found its way into the speeches of world leaders from Barack Obama on his recent visit to Israel in March to Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and even President Peres himself at the recent Facing Tomorrow Presidents Conference in Jerusalem. However it’s not only rhetoric, (although there is plenty of that) driven by the notion of Tikkun Olam, a multiplicity of Israeli and Jewish organisations have emerged, from Brit Olam and Tevel B’Tzedek who have been sending volunteers to the developing world for years to NGOs that are working to connect Israeli social and technological innovation with solving the challenges of the developing world such as Innovation Africa or the Israeli Social Model.
However, perhaps the greatest opportunities for Israel’s potential involvement in international development comes with the recent shift in the international development community globally to seeking more sustainable methods for assisting the world’s poorest countries. Increasingly the aid industry is turning to market-based solutions and private sector-driven development to galvanise entrepreneurship and reach scale in these countries. Technology and innovation are seen to play an important role in this new discourse. This is an area where the entrepreneurial spirit of Israel, the Start Up Nation has a potentially important role to play.
Israel is already a world leader in some of the areas where the developing world has the most pressing needs such as agriculture, water, renewable energy, medical and education technologies. Furthermore the developing world represents immense markets for innovative Israeli technologies as these countries offer the potential for “leap frogging” into adapting modern technology from the start without having to undergo the often difficult shift away from existing technologies to better solutions. In a city or village where there is no electricity, renewable energy offers an important solution and can be built into new projects from the start. Similarly in these countries entrepreneurs face little competition. Take Mpesa in Kenya for instance: unlike the West where entrenched interests of credit card companies and regulations are an important impediment to adoption of mobile banking, in Kenya 70% of the population uses mobile money, and other countries in the region are quickly following suit.
Israelis understand innovation that comes out of necessity, we have experienced it in our own development, frugal innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that is so relevant for the developing world offers the innovative Israeli spirit an opportunity to thrive. Given both current and future economic growth rates and demographic shifts, the developing world is the future, and Israel well positioned between Africa, Asia and Europe intersects these worlds and has an important role to play in this demographic and economic transition.
If Israel, with its recognised expertise in innovation and technology, was to focus its entrepreneurial energy on addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems, then both the nations of the developing world and Israel itself could have much to gain. The IsraelDev Network comprises of individuals and organisations that recognise this potential and hope to raise awareness to help nudge our civil society leaders, politicians and entrepreneurs in that direction. We hope you will join us in this endeavour!
Caylee Talpert is the Director of Special Projects at Tel Aviv University’s Innovation and International Development Program at the Hartog School of Government and Policy where she manages the IsraelDev Network. Caylee holds an Msc in International Development from the London School of Economics.