Conference Workshop: Sustaining Economic Viability through Holy Land Support Programs: Economic Development and Holy Land Support Programs
In a workshop titled, "Sustaining Economic Viability through Holy Land Support Programs: Economic Development and Holy Land Support Programs," William Corcoran, President of the American Near East Refugee Agency (ANERA), and Raed Saedeh, General Manager of the Jerusalem Hotel tackled the question of economic development amidst a situation mired in economic adversity.
Corcoran led the workshop with a presentation on what ANERA, the largest American NGO operating in the West Bank and Gaza, does to encourage economic growth in Palestine. Corcoran listed the World Bank's qualifications for a healthy economic climate. These include freedom of movement of labor, raw materials, and a finished product for export; a low-risk environment; and potential for partnerships. Corcoran noted that Palestine has difficulty meeting all three of these conditions. Workers, goods, and finished products often face great difficulty moving within the West Bank and into Israel and other markets. Businesspeople and potential investors are risk adverse, meaning politically unstable Palestine, lacking the infrastructure to protect capital and assets, is not an attractive place to invest. And although some partnerships with Israeli businesses exist, such as Palestinians who work remotely for Israeli businesses, these are largely lacking.
ANERA works to develop Palestine's economy by focusing on education and developing infrastructure. ANERA promotes initiatives that encourage children to get excited about learning at a very young age. It has close relationships with four universities and has sponsored the construction of new buildings to train new and existing professionals in areas such as Information Technology. It also works with the Palestinian Authority on the Palestine Education Initiative, which plans to assist Palestinians in making the leap into certain industries, such as software and IT. And by sponsoring the construction of roads, industrial centers, warehouses, and adequate water and sanitation services for businesses, ANERA develops the infrastructure that Palestine desperately needs.
Conference attendants engaged during 10th Conference workshop on economic development
According to Corcoran, ANERA sees a great deal of economic potential in Palestine's future, particularly if international NGOs, local NGOs, and the Palestinian government work together. In both the short- and long-term, tourism will provide great gains for Palestine–but first, Palestine needs trained tour guides, small businesses to manage tourism, and enhancement of religious and historical sites to make it easy for tourists to reach and visit them.
Corcoran said that agriculture, particularly small plot usage, should also be developed. The UN is expanding its farm credit programs to provide smaller loans to more families. Corcoran cited the example of some small Palestinian farms that produce herbs such as basil, oregano, and thyme, and are capable of transporting these from the Jordan River Valley to Europe in only 35 hours.
In trying to plan for Palestine's future, Corcoran said he tries to remember to "plan for the best, but expect the worse." Unfortunately, the political situation forces some organizations to divert attention from development to relief projects. But ANERA tries to achieve one small success at a time. Corcoran closed his presentation by quoting Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who said that the goal should be to help Palestinians "to live just a little better than the day before, and to stay on the land for another day."
Saadeh then spoke about the need to involve Palestine's future leaders in a dynamic process and to encourage them to be more proactive forces for improvement. Saadeh talked about the fragmentation of Palestinian society, an issue that governs economic and social situations in Palestine — farmers are divided from fields, husbands from wives, families from their businesses, and children from schools.
He discussed how to give a small village, town, or neighborhood the ability to compete with those around it. He talked about the need to focus on productivity as a concept; while West Jerusalem can focus on healthcare and IT, for example, East Jerusalem can focus on developing tourism. The task is to identify economic competencies, identify available resources that have been utilized or researched, connect distinct sectors (tourism, communications, cultural) to one another, and finally to build competitiveness.
This is happening now in Jerusalem, Saadeh says, because the sectors have already been set up. In a rural area, it's necessary to first identify resources such as architectural heritage, historic monuments, artifacts and local producers, human resources and educators, and intangible heritage such as music, dance, and folklore. To build competitiveness, Palestine should prop up heritage activities and festivals and develop evening programs that keep tourists in the West Bank overnight. Palestinian-run hotels, if they can't be the largest or the fanciest, could become theme hotels. Specialized tour packages could also help to attract visitors.
The goal, Saadeh says, is to develop income potential for local, rural communities and then transfer ownership to those communities, rather than bringing in large investors.
Local initiatives should emphasize Palestine's 5,000-year history, not just the past 70 years, Saadeh noted. He raised some concerns: particularly that adequate water and waste treatment facilities may not yet exist, in addition to adequate roads and other tourist services. Saadeh also emphasized that the commercialization of Palestinian heritage should be avoided at all costs.
Despite these concerns, Saadeh echoed Corcoran's optimism. The majority of tourism revenue in Israel and Palestine comes from Christian visitors and pilgrims. And while locally run businesses such as the Taybeh Beer Company face great difficulties by being located in the West Bank and trying to import materials and export finished products to outside markets, it can be done–particularly with the help of international organizations such as ANERA, and local businessmen such as Saadeh, who are working to develop targeted, effective, competitive strategies for Palestinian businesses and Palestine's economic future.