In Gaza, a Focus on Creating IT Jobs For Women

A social enterprise starts up in one of the world’s most difficult environments, but one bursting with human capacity.
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Gaza Gateway was established to help IT graduates become employable through outsourcing and opportunities to refine their skills.

Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

How to battle looming unemployment? That’s the question motivating the team at GGateway, a social enterprise in Gaza City in the Gaza Strip. Close to 70 percent of the approximately 1,000 students who graduate each year from IT programs in the Gaza Strip struggle with unemployment. It’s an especially concerning statistic when one takes into account that 45 percent unemployment is the general norm.

That’s where GGateway comes in, the first social enterprise in Gaza designed to combat the continuing challenge of unemployment in the IT sector. As one of its founders, Marilyn Garson helped bring the project to launch in 2013 with the support of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) before returning to her home in New Zealand in 2015. Having worked with war-affected communities for almost 18 years (with launching social enterprises a favorite activity), Garson found herself especially moved by the situation in Gaza.

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“What’s particularly interesting about Gaza is that it’s not underdeveloped,” says Garson; “it’s just trapped.” It has a highly educated youth and workforce (Gazans have high rates of literacy), has an entrepreneurial tradition and is replete with possibilities. People are bilingual, cosmopolitan and highly skilled. “I’ve never worked in a place where the waste was as easily avoidable as it is in Gaza,” says Garson, who spent five years in Afghanistan prior to going to Gaza.

Bottom line, Gaza isn’t in need of development—it just needs innovative design, she says of a situation that suggests hopeful solutions. (“Although economic development is not a substitute for political change. I don’t want to pretend otherwise.”) And the circumstances made Gaza ripe for social enterprise, a model that would allow it to leverage what it knows and what it has—which is a lot. “The key to social enterprise for me has been the ability to design a business around social exclusion,” Garson adds. “These people need to reach the world, and the world needs to reach them.”

Gaza Gateway was established to help IT graduates become employable through outsourcing and opportunities to refine their skills. “Part of the reason we chose IT is that the potential is more immediate than [in] many other industries,” says Garson. Besides, she adds, one of the peculiarities of Gaza is that despite its high level of education, the lack of a knowledge-based economy means that unemployment rates rise as people become more educated. “They become prepared for industries that Gaza does not have.”

“There are many challenges that we didn’t forecast by establishing a business in Gaza.”

In October 2015, Gaza Gateway became an independent entity under the name GGateway, continuing its social entrepreneurial mission of offering temporary employment and a capacity-building environment. GGateway also subcontracts work to the firms employing its IT graduates. As the website states, “Their high-qualified education, multi-lingual workforce, lower costs and higher staff retention could make this particular region one of the most promising competitive outsourcing destinations.”

That’s saying a lot, considering the IT unemployment rate—the highest among all graduates in Gaza, says Rasha Abu Safieh, GGateway co-founder and capacity-building manager. The number of unemployed women is even higher—sitting at 92 percent—which is why the original idea was to target only the female demographic, she tells me during a spotty Skype call with her colleague Bassma Ali. Ali studied social enterprise after earning an IT degree in the US and now manages the enterprise’s technical service development. With fellowships from the Clinton Foundation and Harvard Business School, Abu Safieh manages GGateway’s professional development programs, bridging the gap between graduation and employability.

Infrastructure issues, including limited availability of electricity and bandwidth, are only some of the challenges in the region. Limited physical mobility, isolation, ongoing conflict and inadequate access to venture or growth capital for entrepreneurs are others. Not surprisingly, the realities of running this business sit in stark contrast to how they envisioned it would be, both women say. “There are many challenges that we didn’t forecast by establishing a business in Gaza. It’s a very different story from writing and planning,” Abu Safieh admits with a laugh. “Trying to work our way around these challenges is not easy,” says Ali.

And then there was the issue of registering the initiative without any legal system currently in place in Gaza that recognizes social enterprises. After ten months in legal limbo, they finally registered as a for-profit with a non-profit arm as defined in their shareholder agreement. Anything coming in is reinvested toward their social mission of empowering the graduates and the capacity of the sector. (The only similar model that they could find was in Cambodia—which provided some examples for them to follow.)

“Anything new will be difficult, but the impact will be great.”

Still, the women explain that their biggest obstacles are the same ones faced by other social enterprises: sustainability and maintaining a level of competitiveness, to name but two. The outsourcing market is an aggressive one, to be sure. “There’s a limitation on where we can compete in the market with candidates that have basic skills and not very long training,” says Ali. A competitive advantage helps. GGateway is not a quick fix. The model promotes a sustainable, long-term, end-to-end solution. “I think our model is what distinguishes us in front of donors,” says Abu Safieh. Perhaps so. They did recently receive a $1.3 million donation to help cover operations until the end of 2017. But it wasn’t easy.

Abu Safieh relates that the director of UNWRA, who helped them fundraise, said it was the most difficult million-dollar donation to raise in years. “It’s very difficult to ask donors to be confident to put money toward something related to sustainable economic development,” she explains. And despite their comprehensive offering and the fact that they were the first social enterprise model in IT, convincing others of their potential for long-term impact is hard.

Bottom line: empowering the sector takes time, and supporters need to appreciate that. “We are building capacity to compete with all IT in international standards,” says Ali, who explains that, though they train locally, access to online resources has been invaluable, allowing them to compete locally and internationally. So far so good. As of 2017, they had already trained 75 graduates and employed 50, while 55 freelancers currently work in their co-working space. With travel limited, Gateway’s focus on outsourcing is a boon.

In the past year, GGateway has secured four additional grants in the amount of $300,000US to train 300 IT freelancers on freelancing skills and 60 women on technical skills as well as employ up to 45 percent of them. The money will also go toward supporting IT graduates in Gaza, conducting outreach activities and building the capacity of the management team. And they’re developing five new projects for 30 IT graduates, including an archiving initiative with UNRWA in Amman and a human rights digitization program with UN Women.

“We are running a social enterprise in one of the most difficult places in the world,” says Abu Safieh proudly. “Anything new will be difficult, but the impact will be great.” Garson would agree. “Gaza is bursting with human capacity and potential,” she says. “I’d never seen a place like it before, where people were so ready and eager. The elements are present for terrific progress.”

Excerpted from In the Business of Change: How Social Entrepreneurs Are Disrupting Business as Usual by Elisa Birnbaum. Published June 2018 and reprinted by permission of New Society Publishers, newsociety.com

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