A program unique in the Arab world to teach schoolchildren about water conservation and environmental stewardship is off the ground. An Olympic hopeful, who taught himself how to sprint on a rundown high school track using YouTube videos, snatched up aid to train ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games. A teacher at a nonprofit yoga center got the training to develop an extensive Arabic yoga curriculum. The money and the expertise to do it all came from the crowd, via the fast-growing platform of BuildPalestine.
By linking 12 million Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora, 28-year-old Derrar Ghanem is connecting social entrepreneurs with the tools they need, while shifting perceptions of the Palestinian Territories. But through the haze of ongoing strife, it’s hard for anyone to see beyond what is widely recognized as an Israeli occupation of large parts of the territories.
Born in Athens to a Palestinian father and a Greek-American mother, Ghanem was raised in the city of Jenin in the West Bank. His father, a farmer, struggled to secure a loan to buy equipment. It’s why two years ago he was struck by Besan Abu-Joudeh’s idea to start a crowdfunding platform. At the time Ghanem, a political science and philosophy major at Birzeit University, was managing a co-working space called Work Factory in Ramallah.
We look for social entrepreneurs who have their skin in the game and can show it.
“I thought ’There’s another great idea by an entrepreneur that’ll probably just fizzle out.’ Whatever. I let it go,” Ghanem says. But the next day, Abu-Joudeh called to set up a meeting, winning Ghanem over with her seriousness and passion. Ghanem was attuned to the challenge of securing capital, whether from a bank or the government. “That was the push and motivation,” he says. “We need an alternative means of raising funds. And imagine how many people we can help.”
Together with Abu-Joudeh, Mahran Isamail and three others who have since bowed out, the team established BuildPalestine in October 2016. It’s more than just another Kickstarter. The platform includes “crowdsolving” — applying the wisdom of people across the globe to nettlesome problems. In the background, BuildPalestine’s campaigns are carefully curated, and entrepreneurs are trained in social entrepreneurship and innovation, whether they’re new to the scene or representing established organizations. BuildPalestine also invites experts, local governments and community members to collaborate on solving local problems.
BuildPalestine’s board members — spread across oceans and in fields from film to business to human rights — emphasize transparency and impact for their global donors. Board chair Sara Husseini describes Ghanem as “passionate, creative and energetic — someone who believes that anything can be achieved if you set your mind to it.” As chief outreach officer, he is tasked with overseeing day-to-day activities, from seeking out partnerships to leading trainings, workshops and events. “We look for social entrepreneurs who have their skin in the game and can show it,” he says.
It’s a far different model for building up the territories than international aid, which BuildPalestine’s leaders criticize. “Palestine’s issue is the occupation. Everything else is simply a Band-Aid,” says Abu-Joudeh, who is now based in Washington, D.C., and serves as chief engagement officer. Husseini, a former communications adviser to the Palestinian government, says foreign donations lead to “a perverse situation where aid contributes indirectly toward propping up the occupation, by allowing the Israeli government to maintain control over Palestinian land without having to bear the cost.”
But can small donations from ordinary folks pooled over the internet really match the deep pockets of global governments? “Crowdfunding can’t be the only solution,” says Vanessa Zuabi, founder of JSR Consulting, which aims to bridge business with social impact. “Long-term sustainable sources of funding are critical. This is where the private sector, as well as efforts in venture philanthropy and impact investing, can play a really important role in Palestine and the Middle East more broadly.” At the same time, Zuabi holds that efforts like BuildPalestine can “shift away from the dependency on government aid funding, democratizing how capital is allocated” and helping to address the “real needs of the communities they are trying to serve.” Ghanem, meanwhile, sees his work as “an alternative” to the big-aid model. “Perhaps it can lead us to something better.”
What sets the BuildPalestine platform apart, its founders say, is its support for people, not ideas. And these local solutions cost as little as $5,000. According to World Bank figures, the West Bank and Gaza took in $2.4 billion in development assistance and official aid in 2016. So far, BuildPalestine has raised $126,000 for 17 projects, aiming to provide a destination for supporters around the world who ask, “How can I help?”
As for Ghanem, who dabbles in deejaying at parties under the name DJ Dar (“house” in Arabic), he dreams of one day organizing an international music festival in the Palestinian Territories. There he could spin records, once again working the crowd.
5 Questions for Derrar Ghanem
- What is the last book you read? Ishmael, a novel by Daniel Quinn.
- What do you worry about? Worry is a place I run in and out of all the time.
- What is the one thing you cannot live without? Music.
- Who is your hero? [Palestinian DJ] Sama Abdulhadi.
- What is one item on your bucket list? Organizing an international music festival in Palestine.
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