By Mandy Davis
Sustaining Economic Viability through Holy Land Support Programs was an important discussion during the 15th International Conference of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation. Panelists Sami El Yousef, Regional Director, Pontifical Mission for Palestine, William Corcoran, President/CEO, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), Anthony Habash, Regional Director, HCEF, and Dr. Jad Daniel, Management Consulting Executive and panel moderator, explored how the Israeli occupation adversely affects the economic development in Palestine.
Dr. Daniel opened the session with words to help bring home the issue: “Imagine if Americans also lived under military occupation that restricts imports/exports, flow of capital, and freedom of movement. This is the stark reality of the inhabitants of the West Bank.” The establishment of economic programs will strengthen Palestinians in their struggle to become more economically independent of Israel.
William Corcoran shared the mission of ANERA and how its work in partnership with many faith-based organizations supports this cause. ANERA works only with Palestinian communities in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon. Investment in Palestine is currently happening, especially for building up infrastructure. In line with HCEF’s mission to ameliorate the lives of Palestinians in the Holy Land, Corcoran concluded by stating the critical importance of “continuing to do this type of work, get facts on the ground, and give people dignity in the meantime so that they do not lose hope.”
Mr. Anthony Habash discussed the impact of occupation on the lives of daily people. “For us as Palestinians, the occupation is a shadow. It is with us everywhere. It undermines any opportunity for a sustainable economy,” he said.
He applauded the US NGOs and the private sector for the good role they are playing but still the need for sustainability is dire. There were 77 NGOs in Palestine in 1960, which grew to 210 by 1987 and to 450 by 2000. NGOs create jobs and new opportunities through activities and programs, provide job training, give workers a steady income, which in turn builds people’s confidence and allows them to feel more connected to the community. Creating new jobs is essential for alleviating the high unemployment rate among Palestinians, which has one of the highest in the world among ages 18-35. From 2011 to 2012, the unemployment rates increased 2% to 22.9%. This is largely due to the thousands of yearly university graduates, who are highly educated, and have little to no employment prospects in Palestine.
One such program is the HCEF/REACH Call Center, established in 2011 between HCEF and Paltel, a Palestine communication company. This partnership was a direct result of the Investing in Palestine Business Conference held by HCEF in conjunction with its 12th International Conference (2010). Prior to its establishment, the call center received over 500 applications in just two days, from a majority of applicants who did not know what a call center is, yet they are utterly desperate for work. HCEF and Paltel conducted a training workshop for new employees on the operation of call centers. Currently, there are nearly 30 full-time employees and the hope is that within one year the call center will be fully operational with over 100 employees.
As Habash said, “With every program we do, there is an investment in the future. When Palestine is free, we will be ready.”
Sami Al Yousef followed up by stating the challenges that accompany the quest to achieve sustainability. “The title of the panel is difficult to achieve due to the political instability and occupation…if Israel continues to control all aspects of life, then talks of economic viability need to be modest.” They need to be modest as the reality of the situation is that due to the Israeli occupation, 35% of the GDP of Palestine is lost.
Currently, many economic initiatives in Palestine are labor intensive as unemployment increased exponentially after the 2nd Intifada. Many programs instituted by faith-based/pontifical organizations have been implemented that offer training and short term employment, which helps “restore dignity and put food on the table.” The training and employment opportunities range from three to six months with the possibility for extension, and focus on skills that make the beneficiary more competitive, such as information technology (IT), communication, and foreign language. There is also a special emphasis given to educators in Gaza, unemployed disabled women in the West Bank, and unemployed youth in Jerusalem who can be become care-givers for the elderly.
The Entrepreneurial Scheme Program aims at addressing the high unemployment among the youth, especially for recent graduates who want to stay in Palestine and raise their families there. Rigorous training and start-up funds are provided for potential business owners who have a realistic business idea or plan. During the pilot program, 17 businesses were successfully established. Due to this success, the program has been extended for an additional three years with the hope to help at least 100 families.
While these programs mentioned are still in their infant stage, they have much promise for the future of Palestine and the fulfillment of the big picture. HCEF has more than 16 programs created to help sustain economic viability in the Holy Land.
The 15th International Conference was held at the Washington Marriott in Washington, DC October 18-19, 2013. Visit us online at www.hcef.org to learn more about HCEF and its programs.