Israeli innovation: ‘Good for us, good for them’

Could scientific and creative thinking change the world? Researchers at Tel Aviv University’s Boris Mints Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions to Global Challenges will tell you, “Yes.” They are working together to harness Israel’s renowned innovative mentality for the service of mankind.

“I’m part of a project to bring Israeli knowledge and technologies to low-income Indian farmers,” said Shai Gilat, a research student who recently traveled to remote areas of India with a Mints Institute team.

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“Not a lot of companies or nonprofits consider the different difficulties and challenges that low-income people in these areas have, like they don’t have any cash and they cannot invest in new technologies, or that technologies might need to be adjusted to fit their experiences and needs. We are trying to fill that gap.”

How? According to Dr. Ram Fishman of the TAU School of Social and Policy Studies, by devising novel, viable, long-term and replicable solutions to support developing countries.

An Israeli native, Fishman was trained in the most influential, pioneering programs in the emerging discipline of sustainable development at Columbia and Harvard universities. In the States, at these schools and at George Washington University, Fishman focused his research on food security, sustainable and modern agriculture, water scarcity, poverty and energy issues in developing countries. But he said the more he worked abroad, he realized the need to return to his homeland and elevate the field of international sustainable development.

“The field is not really developed in Israel,” Fishman, told The Jerusalem Post. “But Israelis are poised to become key players in the quest for global, sustainable development.”

Fishman said TAU’s new Boris Mints Institute, established by Russian businessman Dr. Boris Mints, is the perfect place to start.

“Israeli students are among the world’s best in terms of their capacity for interactions with developing communities,” Fishman continued.

“Ironically, they have fewer opportunities for getting involved in this field than in most other countries in the Western world. Israelis’ inherently innovative and entrepreneurial mind-set, together with their maturity and ideological ambitions to ‘heal the world,’ make them the ideal field researchers and ambassadors of change and goodwill for TAU, Israel and the world.”

Earlier this year, for example, researchers spent a month-and-a-half working in Jarkan and Andhra Pradesh, India, with local partners to test a range of new agricultural technologies, including drip irrigation, greenhouses, better fertilizers and seeds, and to find ways to diffuse them among local farmers in market-based ways.

“We never do anything by ourselves,” he said. “We are no more than guests in these communities and we always work with strong local partners.”

In other areas of India, as well as in Kenya, another team is helping smallholder farmers achieve a more balanced use of fertilizers and pesticides for better health, environment and incomes. Another group from the institute is focused on doing policy analysis using big data and field experiments to help save India’s water resources from disastrous depletion. And in Senegal, another team is evaluating the provision of modern irrigation to women smallholder farmers.

The students forged tight bonds with the Indian community.

TAU student researcher Karel Finkelshtein said that on the group’s very last day in Jarkan, one of the farmers gifted them a live fish, tied up in a bag of water, “as a sign of friendship.”

“In India, they have this culture of silence,” explained Finkelshtein.

“And this particular farmer was very shy. Sometimes we felt like we might have been intrusive or annoying him with all our questions. But the fact that he was willing to go out and catch this fish and bring it to us – it was such a heartwarming experience.”

She continued, “Being there, on the ground, makes you really understand how much these people are incredibly intelligent and diligent, it is just a matter of opportunity they don’t have. It is our responsibility to understand most of the world lives like they do in Jarkan, not how we live in the Western/ developed world, and to make sure that resources are sp equally.”

In fact, according to Fishman, the world is facing a daunting food challenge that does not have to exist.

A recent United Nations report revealed that there is no shortage of food in the world, but it’s not being distributed efficiently. Enormous amounts of food are wasted in developed countries, and food production in developing countries falls far short of its potential.

What’s the root cause of these inefficiencies? Fishman asked. The answer, he said, is simple: Ineffective policies.

At the Boris Mints Institute, TAU researchers systematically analyze pressing issues from an interdisciplinary perspective, drawing on knowledge in public policy, food security, renewable energy, water, health, economics, labor studies, conflict resolution, and more. Then, they formulate novel and practical solutions based on cutting-edge statistical techniques and innovations in big data, with rigorous in-depth fieldwork and intensive interactions with local populations.

Finally, they deliver strategic policy recommendations and detailed blueprints for the implementation of these policies.

The fieldwork that was done earlier this year in India (with more to come) is an essential part of this process, Fishman explained.

“Researchers, including students, must immerse themselves in the field because structured engagement with vulnerable populations in developing countries is the key for overcoming the complex challenges that prevail in these important environments,” he said.

“Researchers need to understand the way markets and society operate in developing countries to find out what technologies can be adapted there, and how.”

He said students must understand the realities of low-income people if they are to design policies and business models that could enable new technologies to raise productivity, sustainability and ultimately people’s income in these places.”

“We got to see places we never would have seen but on a research trip like this,” said student researcher David Shurman. “These were tribal villages I did not know existed before.”

Topics for research in the institute are selected based on their potential for return on investment, not in monetary terms, but in terms of the likely impact of the findings and potential for solving real-world problems. An emphasis is put on paradigm building, whereby solutions would be workable on a large, worldwide scale, thereby ensuring the highest possible impact.

For example, currently, a team of researchers is working on a solution to overcome the barriers for drip irrigation to boost the incomes of the poor in an increasingly arid world.

“It is no coincidence that drip irrigation is an Israeli technology,” said Fishman. “We have been able to flourish in Israel in harsh conditions that are like some areas of the developing world. But most farmers in developing countries still do not use drip irrigation.”

There are many barriers to the implementation of drip irrigation, he said, such as an inability to finance a drip irrigation program, lack of technical support to keep the program running, not enough incentive to change or a fear that implementation will fail.

“It is not enough just to develop a great technology that could be useful for these people. You must understand what is preventing them from purchasing it, adapting it and using it effectively,” Fishman said. “These are extremely poor people and the usual business models simply do not work.”

This is a lesson Gilat took to heart.

“A lot of NGOs come and give fertilizer, let’s say, and then they leave. When the fertilizer runs out, everything goes back to the way it was,” Gilat explained. “We want to help find solutions they can implement long term without our intervention.”

Fishman said the time is right for Israel to make its move into this arena. On a political and diplomatic level, Israel is currently developing new and better partnerships in developing countries such as India and Kenya. The institute’s researchers are working to find ways to realize the lofty visions of cooperation articulated by diplomats from Israel and these countries into a grand reality.

“There is tremendous eagerness from these partners to cooperate,” Fishman said.

He continued, “Israelis are daring enough not to see these developing areas as just places of poverty, but places of potential. Our researchers and students are scientifically capable and driven by the mission and are not afraid of hard work and arduous conditions in the field. We know it is good for us and good for them.“

This article was written in cooperation with Tel Aviv University.