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Empowering the techno-geeks of Palestine

West Bank and Gaza, October 10, 2011

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This summer, I attended an event in the Gaza Strip with 100 computer-science students and budding entrepreneurs about the latest open-source software and development tools, showcased by engineers visiting from Google. The attendees had come to find out how they could integrate these tools to create better products and start profiting from their ideas.

The event kicked off the Arab Developer Network Initiative, or ADNI, which is partly funded by Google.org — the philanthropic side of the Silicon Valley juggernaut — and the Source of Hope Foundation. The initiative aims to build a critical mass of young Palestinians who can create and run successful web-based businesses through technical and business training, peer-to-peer learning, mentorship and seed funding.

After a half-hour or so of the requisite meet-and-greet and swag collection, the event officially kicked off with eight engineers and business development experts from Google taking the stage to pumping rock music. The Palestinian participants, most in their early 20s, hustled to take their seats and power up their laptops.

After hearing from several different speakers, the Palestinian programmers got the opportunity to show their skills. They were given a set amount of time to complete a database challenge. The kids took to their laptops with furious intensity, clacking away, checking and rechecking their work.

Finally, one young man threw his hand up to show he’d finished. After a quick review, the Google staffers proclaimed the work of 14-year-old Mohammed to be flawless. Mohammed ascended to the stage, basking in the praise. According to the folks from Google, this was a coding challenge even highly experienced programmers struggle with, and this kid had cracked it in record time.

Mohammed wasn't the only one with exceptional tech talents, as I learned during the next few days spent traveling around Gaza and the West Bank with the Googlers. The engineers and business folks from Google remarked how surprised they were by the sophisticated questions and lofty goals they'd heard articulated.

The Arab Developer Network Initiative presents a big opportunity to improve the job outlook for Palestinian youth. Unemployment is more than 25 percent in the West Bank -- and twice as high in Gaza. Israel's restrictions on movement of goods and people severely restrict the economic opportunities availability to residents.

Some of the only businesses with growth potential there are the ones that can get around these movement restrictions — like information technology. With a couple of thousand computer science students graduating from Palestinian universities each year, there's a swelling tide of tech talent. The need is there, too: while 5 percent of Internet users are native Arabic speakers, less than 1 percent of the available online content is in Arabic.

In order to nurture this nascent information technology ecosystem, Mercy Corps is bringing together diverse stakeholders and leveraging our connections. Find out how you can get involved through mentoring, workshops and other opportunities.

We've invited Google and other tech companies to facilitate these types of trainings, with encourage tech students to think like business people — and business students to think about how to leverage technology. We're also putting out a version of our existing online mentoring platform, Micromentor, in Arabic, and starting a seed fund to invest in startups with the most potential.

Because who knows — the next Steve Jobs may be in Palestine. And if so, Mercy Corps wants to make sure he (or she) has the tools to change the world.