Mercy Corps, Google.org and the Source of Hope Foundation have joined forces to launch the Arab Developer Network Initiative (ADNI) in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, is supporting the first two years of this effort with a $900,000 grant, and the Source of Hope Foundation is providing $1 million. The initiative is intended to spark innovation in information and communications technology (ICT) in the region, and catalyze income opportunities for youth, reaching over 1,000 Palestinian entrepreneurs in the first year.
Through a combination of training in technical and business essentials, peer-to-peer learning, mentorship, and an initial seed fund for high potential startups, capitalized at $500,000, ADNI will help build a critical mass of Palestinian youth who are competent in multiple programming platforms and able to create and run successful web-based businesses. Furthermore, Mercy Corps' MicroMentor platform, a free online service used to link experienced business professionals with entrepreneurs looking for mentors, will be launched in Arabic to provide further support.
As in much of the Middle East and North Africa, the Palestinian population is young – 41 percent are under fifteen years of age – well-educated, and chronically unemployed. The World Bank reports that at the end of 2010, unemployment among those between the ages of 15-29 was an estimated 26 percent in the West Bank and 53 percent in Gaza.
"We believe that increased economic growth brings a better civil society and conditions more conducive to peace," said Stephen Robert, co-chief executive of Source of Hope.
"One of the biggest challenges to economic growth in Gaza and the West Bank is that people can't move freely or easily cross borders," said Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps. "But there's an incredible brain trust of educated young people in the region. Unlike most other industries, web-based businesses are not limited by the physical movement of goods or people. Fuelled by young talent, the tech sector here is just waiting to take off."
Mercy Corps hopes that ADNI will channel young Palestinians into the market opportunities of a global knowledge-based economy. According to the Palestinian Information Technology Association (PITA), over the last decade, the Palestinian ICT sector has grown at an average rate of 8% per year, while other economic sectors have declined. The technology sector still represents only 5% of the Palestinian economy, so there is considerable room for growth. The ICT industry also has a multiplier effect. For every new ICT job created, an estimated three additional jobs are added to the economy.
"This initiative is not just about ensuring Palestinian youth have access to the latest technology to create compelling content. It's also about finding new ways to connect them with the rest of the world," said Gisel Kordestani, Director of New Business Development at Google. "With only 1 percent of online content available in Arabic, there's an untapped opportunity for the talented software developers in Gaza to build applications that expand economic opportunity and access to information."
Mercy Corps and Google will employ their respective strengths in this initiative. As a leading global web company, pushing industry limits through open access tools and cloud-based business solutions, Google will focus on technical and business aspects of the program, including remote and in-person technical trainings and mentoring support. Mercy Corps, with its experience leading multi-stakeholder projects in the developing world, will implement ADNI and secure the support necessary to scale the program.
After testing and refining the ADNI model over the first year, Mercy Corps plans to expand and extend the initiative to new geographies and contexts. Other multinational companies, investors and investment advisors also will be invited to participate.