You can tell that James Otieno is an educator by watching his hands when he speaks. Graceful and dark, they are the most animated thing in Dunkin’ Donuts on this steamy Friday morning. When he points to an imaginary mud hut beyond the plate-glass window, even the Secret Service agent stationed by the door steals a glance out at Second Avenue.
“The gift that Israel has given to me, and to the country of Kenya,” says Otieno in lilting English, “is inspiration. We have been reawakened.”
A block away, barricaded off from the rest of New York, patrolled by SWAT teams and rooftop snipers, the United Nations is convening to launch its 71st General Assembly. The annual weeklong event, known as the UNGA or simply the GA, draws a dizzying line-up of heads of state awaiting their turn at the podium.
This year the GA is emphasizing the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were historically and unanimously adopted at last year’s GA as part of Agenda 2030, the most comprehensive plan to end poverty, fight injustice and the ongoing environmental damages that the world has ever seen.
Also known as the SDGs or the Global Goals, they were intended as a sort of road map, 17 targets that, if hit, would ensure a more equitable and sustainable world by the year 2030. They’re also being used as a sustainability blueprint for Western programs in developing countries.
But no UN document can sum up sustainability more succinctly than Otieno does, using his hands to illustrate why he believes Israel’s development programs in Kenya are the most successful.
“From other countries in the West we get resources, we consume them, then the project is closed, perhaps due to funding. And it is over.
They give money to plant trees but all die. From most of the West we receive development that is not sustainable.”
Otieno believes that the key to Israel’s success in development lies in one word – education.
“Other countries, they give us things. But there is no ownership. We only receive and consume. But from Israel, we receive knowledge. We consume inspiration. And we learn to sustain ourselves.”
In 2010, Otieno spent four weeks at the Ofri International Training Center in Jerusalem.
“When I came back from Israel my eyes were opened to the fact that what I used to consider my challenges, my problems, were actually my opportunities,” explains Otieno, “My training in Israel has changed me. And now, I make change.”
Otieno is principal of the Joel Omino Secondary School in Kisumu, Kenya, where he launched the first Israeli-backed Education for Sustainable Development model school. The ESD curriculum is intended to educate students in biodiversity, teach them how to reconcile economic efficiency with ecological balance, and instill in them a sense of respect for others, for future generations, for the planet and for what it provides to us.
He is in New York to speak at an UNGA side event that was co-hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UN Ambassador Danny Danon on the previous day, several hours after Netanyahu addressed the UN.
The packed event, titled “Israeli Innovation in Developing Countries” focused primarily on private-sector innovations but also shed light on what Otieno considers the source of Kenya’s reawakening: arguably the most obscure branch of the Israeli government, a division of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs known as MASHAV, a Hebrew acronym for Israel's International Development Agency that was established by prime minister David Ben-Gurion in 1957, long before sustainable development became a buzzword, or buzzwords were even a thing.
Danon described why Israel, at the time a fledgling nine-year-old country with plenty of its own problems, would institute a program like MASHAV: “Tikun Olam [improving the world] is ingrained in our values system, as Jews and Israelis,” he says, “Ben-Gurion and [foreign minister] Golda Meir saw the similarities between our land and African nations – the need to reclaim the land, irrigate, and defend ourselves – and they realized we must share the knowledge, we cannot just keep it to ourselves,” he says.
TODAY, MASHAV operates in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Oceania, Central Europe and Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean, bringing professionals like Otieno to its training centers in Israel, as well as conducting training abroad and providing consultants and long-term experts.
Hava Karrie is director of MASHAV’s Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center, located outside Haifa, where the center assists in training women from emerging states who are engaged in community work. Since its establishment in 1961, some 20,000 participants from more than 150 countries have taken part in MCTC’s capacity-building programs, workshops and conferences. The courses focus on three areas of study: Sustainable Community Development, Early Childhood Education, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, with gender as a cross-cutting issue on all three.
Karrie says she sees a change come over participants during their time at MCTC. “They have the chance to meet with passionate Israelis and to see that anything is possible.” She says they develop self-confidence, learn to build or strengthen networks, to express their ideas with clarity and confidence and most of all to believe in themselves.
One thing became clear at the GA – whether through governmental agency or the private sector, the presence of Israeli innovation in developing countries is now inspiring a new generation. The excitement was perhaps best expressed earlier in the week by UN under-secretary general and special adviser on Africa, Maged Abdelaziz, when he said, “Israel is the start-up nation. I have a vision that Africa will become the start-up continent.”
This GA is the first for Danon, who arrived in New York shortly after the adoption of Agenda 2030. The start of his term coincided with inception of the Global Goals, his inaugural year as ambassador unfolded alongside their first year of their implementation, and along the way Danon forged strong connections with diplomats of developing countries, bringing 11 African ambassadors to Israel last summer.
In 2013, then-president Shimon Peres met with Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and presented a new initiative: he proposed coalescing leading global companies into a new international body that would invest in the developing world.
Peres noted that the State of Israel is living proof that natural resources are not a necessary requirement for prosperity and economic independence, and pledged that “Israel will continue to share the knowledge it has gained in the fields of technology, renewable energy and agriculture.”
Danon sees yet another benefit to Israeli investment in developing nations. In June he ran for election to head one of the UN’s six main committees, the Sixth Committee, which is charged with dealing with international legal matters. Danon won the secret ballot election, becoming the first Israeli ever to head a main UN committee, despite a fierce opposition campaign mounted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He says that many of the 109 member states – out of a possible 193 – who voted for him were African nations.
“Here at the UN we need friends. We feel a connection to these countries and are very grateful for their support,” says Danon, who together with Netanyahu met with leaders of African Nations at the GA.
Simone Ellis Oluoch-Olunya is the deputy regional director of Eastern and Southern Africa for UN Women, which signed a memorandum of understanding with MASHAV last February. She says that women are major producers of food and earners of income, but are often blocked by lack of access to productive and financial resources. She has seen the partnership with MASHAV make real inroads towards empowering women and credits MASHAV’s “train-the-trainers” approach with the success.
“This partnership builds on MASHAV’s experience, know-how and technologies with developing countries, and is based on a country’s own development experiences within the global frameworks such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” says Oluoch-Olunya. One of her favorite projects? The Annual Woman Innovator Competition, where the winner receives seed money to expand her business.
AT LAST year’s GA, MASHAV’s newly appointed head, Ambassador Gil Haskel, noted that “only a combination of national policy change, blended with grassroots capacity building can bring about real change. Empowering people is an essential requirement in achieving sustainability. It’s at the very heart of human development.”
You could call it public diplomacy on a shoestring. According to the Borgen Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization working toward eradicating poverty and hunger and described by The Huffington Post as “incredible,” MASHAV had an operating budget of only $94.3 million in 2013.
Of the 35 countries whose foreign development programs are tracked by Borgen, only Chile and Norway ran development programs on less.
Ironically, its low operating budget may have contributed to MASHAV’s highly efficient programs.
Akello Wickliffe graduated from the Joel Omino Secondary School, where Otieno is principal. Through a spotty phone connection from Kenya, he says he’s convinced that MASHAV’s ESD curriculum has transformed his community. “When a child learns to make a bio-sand water filter, the parents have a chance to learn also,” he says, “I am grateful to Israel. My hope is that my children will also have the ESD curriculum.”
According to Wickliffe, at the crux of the ESD curriculum lies the idea of reducing waste, whether by utilizing leftovers for new purposes, or simply by reducing consumption.
“Through the Israeli ESD I have learned that you don’t always need more,” says Wickliffe, “you can start from where you are and use the resources you already have to progress from there.”
BY ALL accounts Israel has had great success instilling that idea in young minds across the developing world, but it could learn a thing or two from other countries when it comes to implementing sustainability at home, where the ever-rising standard of living combined with the ever-growing population – 8.585 million at the last count – are depleting natural resources at an alarming rate.
Like the parable of the shoemaker’s child, many Israelis are in the dark when it comes to the Global Goals, not to mention Israel’s Development Agency. I asked 10 Israelis, and nine of them never heard of the SDGs and are entirely unfamiliar with MASHAV.
The Global Goals are slowly appearing on Israeli radar – Israel now has its own Sustainable Consumption and Production Roadmap, which was developed under the guidance of the Environmental Protection and Economy ministries, and outlines three categories of initiatives: sustainable production initiatives, sustainable consumption initiatives, and initiatives that connect the dots between the first two categories. The roadmap is scheduled to implemented before the year 2020.
If real global progress is ever to be achieved, awareness must first be raised at home.