Avner Halperin is a research fellow with Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative, based in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and led by Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance Tarek Masoud. Halperin and colleagues Mahmoud Khweis, a tech entrepreneur focusing on the Palestinian economy, and Ely Sandler, an Israel Policy Fellow pursuing a master in public policy degree at HKS, have proposed the creation of a new foundation—what they call the Global Palestinian Innovation Foundation (GPI)—to boost the Palestinian tech sector. We asked Halperin about the research, the foundation, and how GPI can succeed where other efforts have failed.
Q: How did the idea for the GPI Foundation come about?
I have been involved in high tech in the Middle East, especially in Israel, for the past 30 years. In that time, I worked on inclusion in high tech, thinking of how we get more and more populations involved. For example, my company, based in Israel, had a Palestinian R&D team working for us developing health software apps for the U.S. market. When I left that company and had an opportunity to connect with the Middle East Initiative and with Professor Tarek Masoud, we both thought it would be great to do some research on policies that could promote inclusiveness in high tech in the Middle East. We saw there was a lot of policy work already being done in that area on the Israeli side. So, we pivoted to what we considered a real opportunity: promoting the Palestinian tech sector, especially in the West Bank.
In my year as researcher at HKS, I partnered with a Palestinian colleague, Mahmoud Khweis, and another HKS colleague, Eli Sandler, at the Middle East Initiative to develop GPI.
Q: Your new report notes the lack of tech development in the Palestinian territories is not because of a lack of effort or financial support but rather due to a failure to establish mutually beneficial partnerships and prepare participants for the international business scene. How does your plan remedy this?
What we have proposed is a new policy initiative that actually focuses on building international business links and business partnerships. We took our lead from a very successful U.S. policy initiative, the Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation, which promoted the Israeli high-tech sector. The idea is to put money to work where we actually build bridges of collaboration between Palestinian businesses and American entities and Gulf entities.
The other critical gap is the lack of a champion. If you want to build a tech ecosystem, especially a peripheral one, whether it's in Israel, in Taiwan, in Singapore, or in Ireland, you can't just expect it to succeed on its own. You need somebody to champion it. With the governance challenges in the West Bank, you need an, independent entity that will push for Palestinian tech growth, collaborate closely with multi-national corporations that will want to operate locally, and promote academic collaborations, and that's what we are proposing the GPI Foundation can do.
“We envision that GPI may become a model for similar future entities in the West Bank to promote areas of health, education, and energy.”
Q: What factors indicate success for GPI?
One very important factor is the Palestinian diaspora. When you look today at many of the successful high-tech firms in the United States, you find Palestinians in senior positions, whether it's Apple or Intel or Microsoft. When you look at other countries’ high-tech ecosystems, you see that the success of their sons and daughters was a very important success factor. That link between the Palestinian diaspora and the home has not been effectively done before. We think that's another very important function of GPI: connect Palestinians in high tech in the United States, for example, who want to be involved and supportive of this initiative.
We also think a key role for Foundation is to promote women involved in high tech. It can be a mechanism for promoting women's role in the economy in Palestine. That's certainly a very important added benefit for this initiative.
Another important point is the support by international entities. So, of course, the U.S. State Department is first and foremost, but we are looking at one or more of the Gulf countries for support because there is a unique opportunity for the Palestinian tech ecosystem to be a gateway of technology into the Arab-speaking world. We see a lot of technologies globally that are not making their way into the Arab-speaking world. The Palestinians are well situated to be that portal.
We envision that GPI may become a model for similar future entities in the West Bank to promote areas of health, education, and energy. It may become part of a longer-term effort by the United States and other supporting governments to strengthen Palestinian civil society and build state capacity.
Q: What role did HKS play in the development of this proposal?
Our team was privileged to receive tremendous support and guidance from Professor Masoud and the entire Middle East Initiative research team in addition , [Frank Plumpton Ramsey Professor of Political Economy] Richard Zeckhauser, as well as experts at Harvard Business School. They heard some of these ideas and gave very valuable feedback, criticism as well when needed.
For this project to succeed it needs to be focused on economic development independently of local governments. .Also, it’s important to note that this is something that is intended to be Palestinian-led, for the Palestinians, by the Palestinians, with U.S. and Gulf support. As such, HKS can provide invaluable ongoing policy evaluation and a prestigious, objective place to meet and discuss these ideas and overcome policy challenges as they come up. We think this will strengthen the Palestinian economy. As a citizen of the Middle East, I believe that anything that we do to promote the economy and wellbeing of the Palestinian people eventually will contribute to building bridges and to generating collaboration and hopefully leading to a peaceful resolution in the future.
Q: What comes next?
We are very actively talking to the key people that need to make decisions in the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Israel. They are the key players and if they decide to get behind it, then I think this will move towards a working group that will continue to think and push this forward into actual implementation. We will also continue to talk to other key stakeholders such as the World Bank, Gulf states, and the UN that can support this initiative as well. What we hope to do from the MEI side is to support this with ongoing policy analysis and research and a place for these creative ideas to be reviewed and discussed for the region’s benefit.
There is much more work to be done on the opportunities between the Palestinian ecosystem and the Gulf. That's what I hope to be doing in this second year of the fellowship. I think regional collaboration right now is a major opportunity and how to balance those challenges and opportunities is what we hope to work on in the coming year.
Palestinian programmers attend a Ramallah Startup Weekend workshop in the West Bank city of Ramallah. AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed