How Gaza’s entrepreneurial spirit could change the narrative of despair
Back in the early 1970s, a young, brave visionary — some might say a hopeless dreamer — rose to prominence when he defied the logic of the banking system by lending small amounts of money to the very poor in his country, Bangladesh. Against the banking logic of the poor being too risky to lend to, the professor of economics was convinced that he would help them break the suffocating chains of poverty and create a new business model.
He was correct beyond his wildest dreams. Muhammad Yunus turned into the great oracle of microfinance and social enterprise, and his Grameen Bank has been the driving force behind the elevation of many millions out of poverty — not only in his own country, but in other places that have been open to taking on board his economic philosophy.
A central pillar to this philosophy has always been that entrepreneurship is a trait that exists in all of us, and it is circumstances and conditions that can either supress it or allow it to flourish. A new report by the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, which surveyed small businesses in the Gaza Strip, provides a clear validation to his approach.
The very idea that against the backdrop of siege and oppression can emerge an entrepreneurial private sector, as tiny as it is, is a great victory for the human spirit and a testament to the Gazan people, considering the dire conditions in this small enclave, which is home to nearly 2 million people.
Since a land, sea and air blockade was imposed on Gaza by Israel, the stories coming out of this small and highly populated piece of territory are always of war, suffering, poverty and unemployment. Hence the report’s stories are heart-warming.
For instance, there is Sumah Al-Nahal, a communications studies graduate from Al-Aqsa University in Gaza who started a jewelry and card business; Shadi Salameh, who owns a mobile phone sale and repair business; or Hanan Khashan, an independent digital marketing consultant.
The very idea that against the backdrop of siege and oppression can emerge an entrepreneurial private sector, as tiny as it is, is a great victory for the human spirit and a testament to the Gazan people.
Young people in their late 20s and early 30s are, against the odds, breaking the chains of their dire conditions, in complete defiance of those who are making their lives almost impossible by blockading them, misgoverning them, or using them as pawns in Palestinian domestic politics. The people of Gaza are caught between all these forces, though they have shown great stamina in withstanding everything that has been thrown at them.
But as encouraging as Gisha’s report is — and it is right to highlight entrepreneurial activities in Gaza — this represents a mere drop in an ocean of disheartening news. Bringing such activities to light in a place where it would be easy to be defeated by despair, as those who have laid a cruel siege on the people of Gaza would like them to be, is a cause for optimism.
Given a change in current Israeli policy, and the creation of conditions conducive to economic development and enterprise in cooperation with authorities in Gaza, the private sector, international organizations and NGOs, the discourse in the territory could change from one of conflict to one of economic prosperity, healing the rifts within Palestinian society and leading to peaceful coexistence with Israel.
Entrepreneurial minds exist everywhere, but they need to be nurtured from an early age. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and the Gazan people have demonstrated this in all walks of life, peaceful and otherwise. For small businesses and start-ups to develop and flourish, they need a conducive environment, including stability and certainty.
In Gaza, we can witness people refusing to lose hope and proving their resourcefulness. Their success is, of course, a cause for celebration and needs to be highlighted on its own merit. However, it also should lead us to try and imagine just what this world’s biggest open-air prison could have been had it not suffered from a sea, air and land blockade.
How different could have been the lives of its people had Gaza not been under constant threat of war, with just a few hours of electricity per day, with fast-deteriorating access to sanitation and clean water, as the infrastructure continues to erode and a humanitarian crisis is always looming. Conditions such as those in Gaza not only deprive people of their basic rights, but also lead to deep-seated resentment and conflict.
Yunus encapsulated this in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, saying: “Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace, we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.” Morality and expediency can enhance each other, not hinder one another.
Reading Gisha’s report reminded me of when I joined the corps of journalists to cover the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005. On the road between two settlements overseeing the pristine Gazan beach stood the small Cafe Salah, which was a gathering place for journalists from across the world. The owner, gazing with hope and excitement at the recently evacuated Israeli settlements nearby, shared with us his dream to build a luxurious beach resort in place of the erstwhile settlements.
Needless to say, this resort has never been built, and his entrepreneurial instincts have to wait for more hopeful times. But despite this, I hope he will never abandon his dreams. In them lies the hope for normalcy, in a place on which total madness has been imposed for way too long.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg