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Telling young tech entrepreneurs to go fish

West Bank and Gaza, February 4, 2012

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Last week, Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood was abuzz with a rare combination of techies, social investors, Arab world watchers and humanitarians. This eclectic group was brought together to learn about a unique program called the Arab Developer Network Initiative (ADNI). Formed by Mercy Corps, Google.org and the Source of Hope Foundation, ADNI boosts the efforts of young people in the Palestinian Territories to become technology entrepreneurs. Find out how you can get involved through mentoring, workshops and other opportunities.

Unlike the typical Mercy Corps event, this panel of speakers from Mercy Corps, Google.org and Startup Weekend didn’t mention giving away food, water, shelter or other kinds of assistance. Instead, they talked about fostering a culture of entrepreneurship, and in some cases, doing what’s often considered taboo in the aid world: encouraging failure.

“We’re not giving people fish, or even teaching them to fish. We’re saying: Go fish! Entrepreneurs will learn from failing,” explained Adam Stelle, COO and facilitator of Seattle-based Startup Weekend, which runs 54-hour events around the world, bringing together techies of all stripes to share ideas and launch startup companies. They’ve already run one Startup Weekend in the Gaza Strip – the winner plans to establish a mobile-based service to remind ailing patients to take their meds – and there will be more in the coming months.

For young techies in Gaza who are hungry for economic opportunities, the experts who visited from Google are their heroes; they’re who these young people want to become. Google is also hungry for opportunities — there’s a global gap of Arab-language content and applications that young, enterprising techies in the Palestinian Territories can start to fill.

So what’s a global humanitarian agency like Mercy Corps doing in this mix? In a place as isolated as Gaza, Mercy Corps provides the critical local connections, know-how, and startup capital that other investors are too risk averse to offer. Through ADNI, Mercy Corps isn’t providing non-profit solutions; we’re facilitating for-profit ones.

As Mercy Corps’ Senior Director of Social Innovations Andy Dwonch explained, the complicated politics of Gaza mean that the only economic opportunities are virtual, and a tech-savvy youth population is well positioned to jump on these. Dwonch asserted that the end game of Mercy Corps’ work in Gaza isn’t a successful aid program. Instead, “The big win of Mercy Corps’ work in Gaza is new companies and whole lot of jobs.”