Conflict is a leading cause of poverty. Business can help bridge divides. Jerry Marshall is a co-founder of Transcend, Palestine, an “Impact Investment” technology company that transcends the Separation Wall by creating jobs unaffected by movement restrictions, building skills and hope, and developing relationships across the divide. The Transcend model could be adapted for replication elsewhere.
“Seventy-three percent of people in the societies of the bottom billion have recently been through a civil war or are still in one,” said Professor Collier in The Bottom Billion. Conflict is “pretty distinctive,” he says, to the poorest countries on the planet.
In these countries conflict tends to be a pattern, often prolonged. In times of relative peace, business can help break the cycle in two main ways. First, the catalyst of mutual reward can develop business relationships across the divide, which in time can break down the myths and fear of “The Other”. Second, the creation of jobs, skills, self-esteem and hope is a disincentive to conflict: there is more to lose.
Of course this is a simplification, situations vary and there are pre-conditions. For example, business relationships that are asymmetric – one side has all the power – can break down rather than build trust.
The area of conflict in which I have been involved for 25 years is officially known as oPT, the occupied Palestinian Territories. The West Bank is not part of the “Bottom Billion” and the conflict is not usually described as a civil war. However, it is a conflict with global implications and the resulting movement restrictions (notably the Separation Wall) has created high unemployment and significant poverty. Better integration of the Israeli and Palestinian economies would be worth billions to both sides but travel restrictions make this difficult and business relationships are often asymmetric.
The dream that became Transcend, the business I co-founded with my friend Nassim Nour, came out of a workshop in 2005 which looked at how we could create “robust” jobs, jobs that would survive sporadic conflict and border closure. We need to have an “invisible” export. Given the strong language skills in the Bethlehem area and the strength of the Israeli call centre business, our plan was to create a new sector on the Palestinian economy selling bi-lingual (English / Arabic) voice services to companies serving clients in the Gulf and broader Middle East.
It was a long gestation period and initial plans to work with an Israeli call centre company did not come to fruition. Finally, however, our for-profit “Impact Investment” company Transcend opened for business in 2012.
Financially, it was a challenging start, but now we have 120 staff across the West Bank and Gaza, serving clients in Palestine, Israel, USA and Europe. Margins are tight but the business is profitable. Positive relationships across the divide have developed. A third of the business is now software development and we have begun a further division in the area of customer feedback systems. We are currently completing second round funding with the aim of growing to 1,000 staff. Those who move on bring language, business and customer care skills to other companies in Palestine.
As well as creating jobs designed to survive even in a curfew, we try to model integrity and gender equality. Our first CEO, Abeer Hazboun, became the first Palestinian woman to complete the prestigious IMD MBA in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Encouraging and respecting our staff is a vital part of what we are attempting to model. “I feel like management trusts my decisions and supports me in my daily work,” said Rozet Najajrah, who was regularly “Agent of the Month” and is now team leader for a wellness programme. “I love the open door policy and flexible schedule, I work with people who are intelligent, fun and responsible... we are all working toward a common goal.”
Behind Transcend is a desire to bring hope. Yaman Qaraqe, one of our first team leaders said: “This transcends political barriers and limitations. I really love that. I’m the eldest daughter in the family and I’m my family’s hope… I love it because it makes me feel renewed every day because I learn about other cultures and it helps my English come to life.”
Could this be a model for other areas of conflict? Of course it needs adapting to local resources, challenges and opportunities. It is also likely to need support: a third of our initial funding came from a Dutch Government scheme, with the rest from the individual founders and a bank loan. Later, “soft” venture capital funding enabled us to grow.
With these conditions in place, business can be part of the solution to poverty created by conflict and bring a high social return for very modest investment.
“Transcend reflects the Palestinian dream of a prosperous life with open borders”, said Development Manager Abdallah Khalifah. “We're working with clients from all over the globe and across borders. I believe that creating jobs for youth in a very troubled place of the world is worth working for.”
Reach out to Jerry directly to join his Connection Zone Lunch discussion on business and peace at the Business Fight Poverty conference in Oxford on 11 July 2019.
Learn more about Transcend here www.transcend.ps
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