How Can Jews Best Help Third World? Expertise and Innovation

Short-term volunteer work by Jewish youth in the third world has good intentions but we must be careful not to exploit the global poor to promote Jewish identity.

The Jewish world has finally discovered the third world. For the first time this year at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations, the potential for a Jewish contribution to international development was big news. There are presently at least five donor-funded initiatives up and running to establish new volunteer programs that will bring college graduates for stints of varying lengths to the developing world. Suddenly, everyone is talking the talk of tikkun olam.

This is a welcome change. Investing in international development truly has the potential to bring multiple returns. Beyond enabling us to act upon Jewish humanitarian values by helping others, it also is a way for Jewish organizations to engage young people who may feel more passionately about their responsibilities as global citizens than they do about their identities as Jews. Moreover, it provides the opportunity to build a positive agenda with African American and immigrant communities as well as with international organizations.

However, as I have watched the Jewish community dialogue on tikkun olam progress, I have become increasingly concerned that what we are really doing is not exploiting Jewish and Israeli expertise to save the world but rather exploiting the global poor to promote Jewish identity.  Which is why, despite the fact that volunteer programs are probably one of the least effective ways to actually bring about sustainable change in developing countries, it seems to be the only type of intervention being discussed by tikkun olam advocates in the Jewish world.

Let us be clear: young, unskilled volunteers are interns.  And like all internship programs, "Peace Corps" type programs are very important as a way of engaging and building the capacity of promising future advocates and professionals.  Recent college graduates may bring a huge amount of energy, creativity and enthusiasm to their work.  However, few organizations would say that their value is primarily driven by the interns they engage.

So, too with international development.   It is admirable that there is so much interest in the Jewish world in training a generation of future international development leaders and advocates. However, if we want to legitimately claim that we are working to meaningfully improve the lives of the global poor in the present, we must do more.  In a complex world with complex problems, sophisticated expertise is needed needed to meaningfully improve the lives of the 2.6 billion people earning less than $2 a day.   

Fortunately, there has never been a time when the potential has been as great for a Jewish contribution.  But to do so, the Jewish world should partner with Israel, the start-up nation.  Technology has emerged in the 21stcentury as the single biggest game changer in international development.  Cell phones have transformed the lives of the world's poorest people.  Off-grid solutions and energy have provided rural villagers with clean water and electricity for the first time in history.   Advances in drip irrigation and improved seed and post-harvest technologies are enhancing food security around the world.  One innovation – a cure for AIDS, a vaccine for malaria, a drought-resistant crop strain, can save more lives than dispatching tens of thousands of volunteers possibly could.  By working in partnership with Israel, and harnessing the enormous potential of Israeli technologies in fields like water, agriculture, renewable energy, health and education we can help save millions of lives in the developing world.

Israel is already there.  The Innovation and International Development program at Tel Aviv University, in partnership with the Pears Foundation, has been working closely over the past three years with the Israeli government to develop support mechanisms for Israeli technology innovators, entrepreneurs and companies interested in innovation for developing countries.  They Israeli government understands that we can do well economically, and enhance Israel’s reputation as a force of good in the world, by using our creative potential to address critical barriers to development.

So what can the Jewish world do?  It can fund more scholarships for graduate students from low income countries in Israeli institutions.  It can fund expert-driven development projects and Israeli research targeted at addressing the most critical challenges of development.  It can organize business plan competitions for Jewish youth and invest in Jewish and Israeli social enterprises that promise to bring value to the world's poor.   And, alongside all that, it can also prepare our youth for a lifetime of service to Jewish values by establishing volunteer programs.  However, only by doing our utmost to meaningfully address development problems today through our innovation and expertise will we be able to legitimately claim to our youth and to the world that we are truly living up to the Jewish value of healing the world.

Dr. Aliza Belman Inbal is Senior Pears Fellow and Director of the International Development program at the Hartog School of Government and Policy, Tel Aviv University.