MercyCorps connects geeks from Gaza to Seattle

Photo credit: MercyCorps

Seattle is a veritable technology hub. It’s home to two of the biggest tech companies on the planet, Microsoft and Amazon.

Hundreds of geeks are hard at work in Seattle offices, creating the next-generation of computer and web products. But we can’t claim geeks as our own.

Anywhere there’s electricity and a connection to the Internet, you’ll find them – even in the Gaza Strip, a tiny and impoverished territory in the Middle East.

Now, Portland-based aid group MercyCorps is working to build a bridge between American software developers and their counterparts in Gaza.

Partnered with Google and Seattle-area nonprofit Startup Weekend, the organization is calling on Seattle’s tech community to support Palestinian startup companies, whether through virtual mentoring or social investing.

As the program’s leaders explained in a discussion hosted by MercyCorps in Seattle last week, Palestinian geeks went wild in a 54-hour marathon “Startup Weekend” last month. You can see young developers positively brimming with enthusiasm in this video.

“When you go to Gaza with Google, they just light up,” said Andy Dwonch, Senior Director for Social Innovations at MercyCorps.

One of the developer proposals was for Gaza Places, the Palestinian version of Google Maps. Google’s satellites haven’t mapped out the blockaded territory. There were several pitches for applications that helped devout Muslims keep track of daily prayer times.

But in the end, the “Take Your Medicine” app took the weekend’s top prize, which can remind you or your grandmother to take your pills.

After reviews of their business plans, the startup ideas of the top three teams could be funded.

Poverty and unemployment levels are high in the Gaza Strip, in large part due to the crippling Israeli blockade. At the same time, it’s a highly-educated society, with a 99% literacy rate.

Gisel Kordestani, formerly the Director of New Business Development at Google, pointed out that there’s little censorship of the Internet in Gaza, unlike places like Syria or Egypt.

Plus, she said, Palestinian developers can be employed for far less than someone in Silicon Valley. “The ultimate goal is new companies, and hopefully a lot of jobs,” Dwonch added.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, you should always talk to the supposed beneficiaries of aid programs before assuming they’re effective. I haven’t had the chance to do that in this case.

But Dwonch, who has worked for years in the Gaza Strip, acknowledged the exploitation and ineffectiveness that plague much of what he called “the aid industry.” He said this project was “an effort to get away from that.”

He said MercyCorps has a reputation for implementing programs successfully where others have failed. Kordestani pointed out that it’s the only group that could get past the restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities.

There’s $500,000 in the Arab Developer Network Initiative Fund right now, thanks to investments from Google, MercyCorps, and foundations. MercyCorps’ ambitious goal is to fund 15-20 companies over two years.

I asked Andie Long, a communications officer for MercyCorps, why they held their panel discussion in Seattle, rather than their headquarters in Portland.

“There’s a plethora of tech companies here that could get involved,” she said, in a nod to the preponderance of geeks in our city, some of whom she hopes will become partners, or even employers for Palestinian developers.

As one of the other panelists suggested, if a developer from say, Amazon, could take one hour a week to do virtual mentoring, “they [Palestinians] would love that.”

To donate or learn more, check out MercyCorps’ website. Do it for the geeks.