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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Promoting Entrepreneurship in the West Bank

Fayyad recalled the many investors who had first seen opportunities for growth in the Palestinian territories in the 1990s; they had built greenhouses for the cultivation of flowers, engaged in residential construction, and invested in the pharmaceutical industry. Many had left when peace hopes faded, but he believed they could be convinced to return. In addition, there were many would-be entrepreneurs within Palestine and the broader Middle East. If they had an opportunity to start their own enterprises or grow their businesses, Fayyad said, they could flourish, even in an area rife with conflict.

Just after Annapolis, at the request of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S.–Palestinian Partnership was founded (with a direct mandate from then President George W. Bush) to promote job creation in the region, and to prepare Palestinian youth for the responsibilities of citizenship and good governance. This group, which has remained active in the Obama administration, is led by private-sector executives who believe that their business acumen and commitment to creative and collaborative partnership can facilitate progress toward peace. The partnership has three central pillars of activity: opportunities for Palestinian youth, support for the Palestinian economy through identification of quick-impact opportunities, and international investment. When Fayyad reached out to the partnership with the idea of an investment conference in the West Bank, it was quick to sign on.

The chairman of the partnership is Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, former top executive at Time magazine and CNN, and author (his biography Einstein: His Life and Universe was published by Simon & Schuster in 2007). He knew us, in part, through the Aspen Institute’s annual Ideas Festival, of which Booz Allen is a sponsor, and he had written the foreword to a book called Megacommunities (Palgrave, 2008). Written by three Booz Allen partners — Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, and Christopher Kelly — along with Booz & Company Partner Fernando Napolitano, Megacommunities presented a conceptual approach to solving complex problems that Isaacson thought might work well in Palestine.

A megacommunity is a deliberate design for shared leadership. Senior people in government, business, and not-for-profit organizations come together to cooperate by seeking out an overlapping set of vital interests, usually in the context of solving a mutual problem. Isaacson asked Booz Allen to help facilitate the Bethlehem conference, bringing members of all three sectors into the same room. At the time, the U.S. was in the middle of its presidential campaign season, and Israel also was heading into national elections. No matter who won either election, the current administrations were on their way out, and the American–Israeli–Palestinian relationship would likely change. All this presented a great chance to test a new approach to sustainable entrepreneurship among the Palestinians.

Gathering a Megacommunity
When we joined the U.S.–Palestinian Partnership, the group was reaching out to corporate America for participation. We quickly realized this would be no easy task. “It was hard getting American companies,” Isaacson later remarked. “It was not a top priority for them; it was difficult logistically, the lead time was very short, and they [would be] getting involved in a political controversy where there wasn’t a big economic upside.” But Isaacson and the other partnership leaders knew that if corporate America stayed home, it would send a bad signal. “I think it would have showed that America didn’t care much about the development of the Palestinian people,” added Isaacson. “We had to do a sales job.” Only three months before the conference began, it attracted the support of such companies as Cisco, Coca-Cola, Intel, and Marriott. They saw the opportunities for product branding in the West Bank, and for fulfilling their goals for corporate social responsibility.

 
 
 
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