Ilan Fluss has made it his life’s work to establish Israel’s place at the global development table.
“The main concern for developing countries is development. They don’t care about the Middle East conflict. They care about improving the standard of living and services,” he says. Ilan, who serves as Deputy Head of MASHAV – the development branch of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – believes international development must be a priority in Israel’s diplomacy work. “Through doing [development] work, we make ourselves relevant to these countries, and that opens the doors for discussions and political good will.”
A Haifa native, Ilan worked as an Israeli diplomat throughout the 1990s, serving in multiple countries including the Philippines and South Africa. He then joined the Israeli mission to the United Nations, and initiated the first Israeli-led resolution in the UN. The resolution focused on agricultural technology for development, an area in which Israel has shown itself to be a leading innovator.
“After this resolution was adopted by a great majority in UN…it convinced me that Israel can and should take a normal role in the global process of the UN. On issues of Middle East policy…we’re often on the defensive. But when it comes to development we can be like everyone else: be a noble actor, lead, contribute, make a difference.”
While some may view development primarily as a tool for diplomacy, Ilan reverses this equation: diplomacy, when approached through the lens of development, can be a tool for doing good in the world. He sites the Israel-Germany Africa Initiative – a $50 million collaborative investment in building water management and preservation infrastructure in 6 countries across Africa – as an exciting example. “There has been growing interest to expand relations between Israel and Germany,” Ilan explains. The interest is obviously largely political – Germany is a close ally of Israel in Europe. But there is also potential to do good through such collaboration by pursuing joint projects in the developing world.
“We want to bring a message to developing countries – to show how two countries with a complicated history, even with such emotionally sensitive historic relations… are working together toward a greater good. It’s not just a message, but actions on the ground that show, that is what we were, and this is what we are now – together.”
While passionate about his work, Ilan cautions that international development is challenging. “You have to be very modest… Israelis feel we can change the world, but the Israeli message when we come to places is, we can help you if you will help yourself.” The most successful initiatives are those supported not just by local community members but by the governmental structures themselves.
He describes, for example, an early childhood education program that MASHAV piloted in Kumasi, Ghana, in 2009. Teachers in Kumasi received training from Israeli educators on early childhood education models that approached learning by playing rather than dictation and memorization, and encouraging children to engage through asking questions. Local teachers translated the Israeli models to fit their communities by designing curricula around games and songs from their students’ culture. The project has expanded its reach, as local governing bodies of other major cities in Ghana asked MASHAV to replicate the training for their teachers as well.
Though this project has been embraced by each city and has shown success on the local level, Ghana’s Minister of Education has not yet signed on to adjusting teachers’ training curricula, or the government’s assessment of teachers, to reflect the new approach. Only when a project is completely in the hands of the host country’s government, and Israeli trainers and diplomats are no longer involved, can success be declared. This, says Ilan, can take years.
“The goal of development is [eventually] not to be there. It’s not charity…it’s about transferring skills, knowledge, expertise and giving the tools for independence.” The process of ensuring lasting change is slow, and so development professionals must be exceptionally patient. Still, Ilan loves what he does, and encourages other Israelis and Jews to enter the field.
“It’s amazing work… You see difficult things, you see challenges, [but] you get to see success if you’re lucky. Focus on your goals,” he advises, “look to the future, and ask, what can be done?”