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BuildPalestine: Social Innovation Through an Alternative Aid Paradigm

BuildPalestine’s CEO and cofounder, Besan Abu-Joudeh, talks about the Ramallah-based platform’s newest goal – building a ‘TripAdvisor for nonprofits’ – and discusses the problems and the impact of the projects already implemented.

Written by Chloe Olewitz Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The Al Bustan Center is just one of BuildPalestine’s many funding projects.Credit: BuildPalestine

Besan Abu-Joudeh’s interest in international development began when she was a child, on summer trips to Palestine. She began to think about the gap between her experience of life at home in the U.S. and the life she saw when visiting her Palestinian family. “What is it that makes all these opportunities that I have in the U.S. and what I see here so exponentially different from what I see in Palestine?” she asked herself.

The question stayed with her, and her interest in international development grew from spark to full-on fire. As an adult, Abu-Joudeh moved to Jerusalem to take an economic policy job, but it didn’t take long for her to strike out on her own. “I decided the job wasn’t for me,” she said. “It wasn’t having the impact that I had anticipated or that I had hoped for, the kind that has you pick up and move halfway across the world.”

That’s when Abu-Joudeh began to lay the groundwork for BuildPalestine – a platform dedicated to connecting local Palestinian social impact projects with a network of donors around the world. If academics and policymakers were all moving too slowly in Palestine, prioritizing bureaucracy over real change, Abu-Joudeh said she took it upon herself to ask the question: “What really needs to get done here?”

Historically, Palestine has received huge amounts of international financial aid. After the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were the world’s largest per-capita aid recipients of international development assistance, and have consistently ranked among the top aid recipients ever since. But between the stranglehold of the occupation, corruption, economic sanctions and humanitarian crises, much of that aid has been held back from realizing its intended benefit.

“What I saw as fundamentally wrong with Palestine is we have all this aid, but it’s not necessarily in the right places,” she said.

Abu-Joudeh and her cofounders, Derrar Ghanem and Mahran Isamail, officially launched BuildPalestine in 2016 with funds raised from their own network and their personal savings. In its early days, the organization focused its efforts on crowdfunding for startups.

“We were determined to develop an alternative aid paradigm where individuals could support grassroots projects without having to deal with political agendas and go through international donor systems,” Abu-Joudeh said.

The original BuildPalestine concept was to create a crowdfunding platform for social tech projects, empowering local entrepreneurs who know best what is needed in their communities to gather financial support from international donors. But in an already crowded scene of crowdfunding platforms, Abu-Joudeh realized that fundraising alone wouldn’t get to the heart of the kind of support the Palestinian startup community needed.

“We didn’t want to just be adding more money to the problem. Instead, we shifted to really supporting people to tackle these community problems through social innovation and social entrepreneurship,” Abu-Joudeh said.

Supporting Palestine’s Women Entrepreneurs

For the future of women’s entrepreneurship in Palestine, it makes a difference that an organization like BuildPalestine is founded and run by a woman. Rahhal Rahhal, an adviser on women and youth economic empowerment with Oxfam International, said the obstacles faced by women entrepreneurs in Palestine are specific and systemic. He has seen three major challenges: sexist social norms; expectations of labor in the home; and the absence of an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“If you go to a typical village and ask men there what they think of businesswomen, or of women working on a project outside the home until 10 p.m., you will find 90 percent rejecting the idea,” said Rahhal. “They would say a woman’s place is in the house.” Related to these traditional ideals of the role of women in Palestine are the expectations that a woman in any family should and will tend to the household labor such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. Rahhal said that because few men would contribute to this kind of domestic work, female entrepreneurs aren’t supported in whatever endeavors they pursue outside the home. “Women have a very hard time managing home work and the business they want to be successful,” he said.

Then there is the lack of basic services supporting an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Palestine. “I lived in Canada for 14 years,” said Rahhal. “Entrepreneurs in Canada have their own development bank.” On top of the general lack of any startup support infrastructure in Palestine, women are further disadvantaged as a minority group. “The Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute found that female entrepreneurs form only 17 percent of all entrepreneurs in Palestine,” said Rahhal. “For a male entrepreneur, it’s easier to get a loan than for a female entrepreneur.” And it’s easy to tie this kind of discrimination back to the first two obstacles – the employees of banks, for example, are regular people who live in the same villages, ingrained with the same social norms and inherited traditionalist ideals.

BuildPalestine doesn’t limit the projects it accepts based on gender, but there is certainly pride in busting open the barriers to entry for female founders in Palestine who face so many additional obstacles.

How BuildPalestine Works

BuildPalestine is selective and accepts one out of every 10 project applications it receives. During the application process, social entrepreneurs are asked to demonstrate how their projects meet the program’s three main criteria: social impact, innovation and sustainability. Last year, they raised about $70,000 for projects on the platform.

The “crowdsolving” part of the platform comes in the form of open calls for innovation, Abu-Joudeh said, “where we can create a space for people in our community to innovate about the problems they face.” Some campaigns on BuildPalestine are pitched directly as complete projects, but others emerge from these crowdsolving challenges.

The crowdfunding part of the process is next. Accepted projects receive mentorship and coaching from the BuildPalestine team leading up to the official launch of their campaigns, and project creators send out updates about their progress and developments throughout active campaign periods. Partial funding structures (instead of all-or-nothing requirements) allow projects that don’t meet their full funding goals to put the money they do raise toward their idea.

Crowdbuilding is the newest part of the BuildPalestine platform. The idea is to become what Abu-Joudeh calls a “TripAdvisor for nonprofits.” Social entrepreneurs, community members and donors can use the platform to discuss issues and potential solutions, and to trace the impact of projects once they have been implemented.

“The goal is to use technology to better connect beneficiaries, the people who are benefiting from these projects, with the people who are funding the projects,” Abu-Joudeh said.

Water Heroes was recently funded through the BuildPalestine platform. Lamis Qdemat set out to solve the current water challenges in Palestine by creating an educational mobile game to spread awareness and interest among a younger generation of Palestinians.

She met her $8,000 fundraising goal and the game is currently in development. Throughout the crowdfunding process, Qdemat was also able to secure support beyond the financial, from technical skills to grant-matching opportunities that all helped bring the project to life.

Meanwhile, Majdal Sobeh is a Palestinian yoga teacher working to design the first Arabic-language yoga teacher-training curriculum, bringing the benefits of yoga not only to Palestine but to the entire Arabic-speaking world. She exceeded her funding goal of $1,700 this spring, raising a total of $2,585 to put toward teacher training.

While the platform tries to stay away from campaigns that are political or religious, avoiding the political is impossible with a name like BuildPalestine. “There’s fear, especially these days under the Trump administration, about supporting Palestine. No one wants to get blacklisted for donating to an organization called BuildPalestine,” Abu-Joudeh said.

One of the greatest challenges the team has had to face is the difficulty of accepting funds from donors in other countries. PayPal doesn’t serve customers in Palestine, for example. “Being connected online without PayPal is a huge challenge for our work and for any grassroots work that’s being done,” she said.

Once the funds are received, transferring large sums within Palestine, say from Ramallah, where BuildPalestine is based, to Gaza, where many of their crowdfunding projects are located, is at best difficult, and at worst dangerous.

For now, BuildPalestine occasionally partners with a U.S.-based crowdfunding platform called LaunchGood to transfer funds directly from donors to recipients in Gaza, without having to wrestle with intra-Palestinian transfers, which have a tendency to raise flags for donors.

Abu-Joudeh knows these problems are not going to go away any time soon. She realizes now, as she did when she was a child, that opportunities are different in Palestine, and the challenges there are greater than most other places on Earth.

“Even though we’re a nonpolitical organization – we don’t do politics – just using the word ‘Palestine’ is a political statement these days.”

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