In the 1950s the fledgling state of Israel could barely provide for its own citizens. Surrounded by enemies, trying to cope with a flood of largely impoverished refugees and with scarce natural resources, Israel was the definition of a developing country.
Yet not only did Israel develop, its government provided generous support to the world’s other developing countries. In its first years, Israel contributed significantly to the developing world by sharing its nation-building and rural development know-how with African and Asian countries gaining independence from colonial powers.
In an ambitious initiative promoted by Mashav, Israel’s agency for international development co-operation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thousands of Israeli experts were sent out to assist developing countries in different fields. Soon Israeli experts were hot commodities throughout the Third World, valued and respected as specialists in various development-related fields, including agriculture, emergency medicine, and youth empowerment.
These projects weren’t completely selfless, of course. The hope was they would gain international support and help alleviate Israel’s political isolation. But leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir also believed that such projects were part of a moral imperative to be a light unto other nations. Given the number of people living in extreme poverty — today it has reached 1.2 billion — it is no wonder that they declared that Israel has a moral duty to help.
Over the years, Israeli involvement in these global humanitarian efforts has dwindled. Since the 1960s, the percentage of Israel’s gross national product allocated to Mashav has fallen tenfold. No longer is Israel considered a significant player in the field of international development. And Israeli experts — once well represented in tenders by World Bank and UN agencies — are now severely underrepresented, seldom winning such contracts.
But the tide is slowly turning. Recognising the pivotal role of developing nations and emerging economies in geopolitical and economic affairs, the state of Israel has turned renewed attention to developing nations and how to enhance relations with them. New government programmes have cropped up to enhance trade and diplomacy, especially with larger developing countries. Still, the role of aid has yet to receive due attention and despite discussions about increasing aid budgets, the funds have yet to materialise.
Non-governmental organisations have stepped in to help fill this void, both to supplement the still-limited state projects and notably, to run projects where the Israeli government has no diplomatic relations. These NGOs are active in a range of fields including: search and rescue, trauma and humanitarian aid, community development, education, health, and agriculture.
Foreign donors fund the overwhelming majority of these efforts. The UK’s Pears Foundation is one of the leading strategic partners for these efforts, providing funding for initiatives and organisations designed to enhance Israel’s role in global development and humanitarian aid. Pears is also the strategic founding partner of SID-Israel, an umbrella organisation of NGOs, government agencies and the private sector, working to encourage Israeli involvement in global humanitarian efforts.
What role will Israel play in the international development arena in the coming years? This question was the subject of much discussion at a conference at Tel Aviv University hosted by SID-Israel last Sunday, funded by the Pears Foundation. Hundreds of participants, including UN representatives and government officials, came together to learn from each others’ experiences and consider new ways forward.
The state of Israel and the Israeli organisations active in the field of international aid and development stand at a crossroads. Israel has the best to offer in the international development arena. We hope it will succeed in raising its stature and involvement.