Developing Relationships With Developing Countries: An Interview with Head of Mashav, Ambassador Gil Haskel

What do you get when you cross Jewish philanthropy with a Yiddishe kop? If you’re in Israel, you get MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. MASHAV just celebrated 60 years of bringing Israeli goodwill to developing countries across the globe, many on the African continent. Drawing on technological and scientific developments that have made Israel into a miracle nation, MASHAV has trained close to 300,000 professionals from over 140 countries in an effort to better the lives of underdeveloped and impoverished populations.

This world-renowned aid agency, which has spearheaded efforts to share Israeli know-how in the areas of poverty reduction, urban development, technology, irrigation efficiency, and others, is headed by Ambassador Gil Haskel. Ambassador Haskel has worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel since 1992 and has served as the head of MASHAV since 2014. In an exclusive interview with Hamodia, Ambassador Haskel talks about his diplomatic career and the triumphant spirit of giving that characterizes MASHAV.

Please tell us about your background and how you became involved in MASHAV.

I’m a career diplomat, and I’ve been in the Israeli Foreign Service since 1992. I started my career serving in India and also served in Japan. Four years ago, I completed my mission as Ambassador to East Africa. As an ambassador, I was stationed in Kenya, and oversaw other East African countries, including Uganda, Tanzania and others.

MASHAV is part of the Israeli Diplomatic Service. When I returned to Israel, I became Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and head of the Division for International Development Corporation, which is MASHAV.

Please tell us about your experiences in those countries and what led you to become involved in the area of development.

I think one of the most effective tools in Israeli diplomacy vis-a-vis developing countries is MASHAV. During my diplomatic career, I recognized the effectiveness of international development, where basically Israel assists countries facing major challenges, which are usually food security, water security, and health security.

This assistance fosters a very deep sense of mutual understanding and confidence building between nations and peoples. The further along I went in my diplomatic career, the more I saw how essential this is to an Israeli diplomat. That’s why, after completing my mission in Africa and East Africa, where you definitely see the impact of international development on these societies and countries, I wanted to be the Director of the MASHAV. I felt there is a lot to be done and to be reformed within the Israeli Development Program. So I applied for the job, and I was chosen four years ago.

MASHAV references Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s and Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s decision in 1958 to extend outreach to developing countries, even though Israel itself was a fledgling country. While the inspiration was undoubtedly altruistic, wouldn’t you agree that their motivation was to cultivate relationships with countries that could counterbalance hostile Arab states in the U.N.?

I would say that the motivation was a blend of three major pillars. The first was definitely a realpolitik, pragmatic will to get as many countries as possible on Israel’s side through different means and measures. One of them is through international development. Ben-Gurion spoke about that at the time, and Golda agreed with him. The second is also a pragmatic broadening of economic relations between Israel and those countries, since we bring Israeli companies to work there.

But you cannot ignore the third pillar, which is unique to the Israeli and different from any other national development program, and that is the desire to help others. We have that Jewish philosophical trait of healing the world. So while we don’t brush aside the pragmatic motivations of Israeli development, we also don’t brush aside the humanitarian portion of it.

Has it paid off politically?

It’s very difficult to measure, because when you have a country that is politically close or supportive of Israel, it’s always difficult to synthesize why. There’s no doubt there’s immense appreciation towards Israel. We hear it at every meeting from their leaders, in public statements, and in their press. It’s not always translated directly into the political behavior of a country, because every country is influenced by many factors and interests. But it definitely brings the countries closer to Israel.

The end goal is likely having these countries become self-sufficient. While the African continent is blessed with enormous natural resources yet plagued by ongoing and rampant poverty, do you think it’s possible for African countries to eventually become developed countries?

It’s funny that the field of international development is probably the only sector that sees its success in its annihilation. Meaning that if we, as an international development agency, will succeed, eventually we won’t be needed.

If you ask me if it’s possible, I think it’s possible. Our message is very blunt, but it has to be said. When I meet with African leaders or speak to African audiences, I tell them that they have to understand that they need to have the self-conviction that development has nothing to do with skin color or race. If you’re black, it doesn’t mean that you have to be underdeveloped.

Anything that has been done by Europeans, North Americans, Israelis or Japanese can be done by Africans. It’s all a matter of self-belief, and it has to be coupled with very distinct governmental policies that induce development. When one of these components doesn’t work, and many times we see faulty government policies in the developing world, it will destroy development.

But in order for them to be development partners with us, we make it very clear that they have to take responsibility for their challenges and own their solutions. They cannot just depend on foreign aid. Because if you just depend on foreign aid, the assistance will not be sustainable. You will get the money, the money will disappear, and development will not be achieved.

Israel succeeded, despite constant wars and the lack of any natural resources. What would you attribute its success to?

Israel started off as a developing country and became an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country with very little international aid. I think the history of the Jewish people and Israel taught every single Jew that you cannot depend on anyone but yourself. Coupled with very clear governmental policies from day one, we realized that we have to develop ourselves regardless of anything else that’s happening around us. Because nobody will come to our rescue but ourselves.

And Hashem.

And Hashem, of course. But we don’t depend on anyone else to develop our own systems, our own society, our own communities, and our own families. If you look at family farming in a developing world, they’re always dependent on someone. They need somebody to come to their assistance. If you look at family farming today in Israel, they have always been self-sufficient. That’s unique in Israeli development.

That is what brings so many world leaders to Israel to try and imitate this very unique experience of development. And that’s why MASHAV was established, in order to work with those countries to duplicate the Israeli model.

Is your attempt to duplicate this model in African countries succeeding?

Overall, yes. Is it succeeding fast enough? I don’t think so. I think the pace can be much quicker if those governments get their act together and combat corruption, for instance, which is an impediment to human development.

Another factor delaying development is terrorism. Israel is trying to work with these countries on anti-terror techniques and policies. In general, there are four major insecurities that are the main factors of underdevelopment — food insecurity, water insecurity, border insecurity and health insecurity. If we manage to tackle all these successfully, I think it will enable a huge leap forward in human international development.

BDS plays a large role in South Africa, where we saw Cape Town authorities refusing Israeli help to combat their severe drought, leading to disastrous consequences. Is this scourge prevalent in other African countries?

The flat answer is no. South Africa is very unique in its anti-Israel sentiment. On the contrary, in all sub-Saharan Africa, we have very supportive and hospitable governments and people. They love Israel and feel a very deep affection toward Israel. Part of it is religious Christian affiliation. And part of it is paying back what Israel has done for them in the last
60 years.

South Africa is not a country that is eligible for Israeli international development, because it’s a middle income country and not eligible for international development assistance. But even if it were, we offer our assistance across the board to countries that have or do not have diplomatic relationships with Israel. Then it’s up to those central, national and local governments to accept or not accept.

We don’t sell a product. We don’t try and impose Israeli development on governments that don’t want it. There are very few governments with whom we have development relations that we don’t have diplomatic relations with. But the South African case is very complex. As you said correctly, Cape Town was under critical water shortage. They didn’t want Israeli assistance. I think they’re the ones that lost from it, and they’re the ones who are still losing from it.

Underdeveloped countries have learned a lot from Israel. Is there anything you have learned from them?

You learn a lot about resilience. You see societies that really struggle on a daily basis with situations that we take for granted: lack of water, lack of electricity, lack of food. We encounter communities where we sometimes find it difficult to understand how they survive. Yet, they have smiling children and smiling mothers.

We also realize how pampered the Western world is and realize that you don’t necessarily need to have a full fridge or a full closet of clothes in order to be happy. Maybe sometimes on the contrary. When you look at Western civilization, I don’t think overall people are much happier than people in Africa or Southeast Asia or the Pacific.

Do you work in conjunction with other countries?

Yes. We work with more than 50 other donor countries, including the U.S., Canada, half a dozen European Union countries, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand. The idea is that donor countries bring to the table their abilities and strengths. Then together we go to third-world countries to assist them.

This also contributes to the overall good relations that Israel has with these donor countries, who are sometimes very critical of Israeli policies, for instance, with the Palestinians. But when it comes to development, we sit around the table and we see eye to eye and share values. This is a very important component in bilateral relations.

How would you respond to impoverished Israelis who might say tzedakah begins at home and wonder why Israel is helping other impoverished countries, rather than investing its resources in its own population?

The state budget is built in a way that allows different allocations for different needs. There’s a budget for security, education, health, and welfare. There’s also a budget for international aid activity outside Israel, which is a part and parcel of Israeli interests. This includes strategic missions, like MASHAV, in an effort to be more effective and influential around the world.

If MASHAV’s budget got cut tomorrow, it wouldn’t necessarily go into the pockets of needy Jews in Israel. Today, Israel is a country on the giving side. And I believe that, if, G-d forbid, one day we will be in a position where we again are in need of assistance, the more assistance we give to countries now, the more we will receive in return. I hope we will never be on that side of the coin again.