Recreating Local Economies in the Negev

21 May 2015

For years, Israel Chemicals Ltd. (ICL) has been a fixture in the Negev, a leading and successful company that employs about 5,000 workers – more than any other employer in the region. In development towns such as Dimona, Yeruham, and Arad, where employment opportunities are scarce, hundreds of families rely on ICL as their only source of income. It is consequently no surprise that ICL’s recent decision to lay off hundreds of workers sparked massive protests.

This Sunday, thousands of residents took to the streets in Dimona, the town most affected by the cutbacks. Municipal offices shut down and newly appointed cabinet ministers rushed to the town to express their support. Additional protests were held in towns throughout the region, underscoring regional solidarity and concern for the future.

It is against this backdrop that the Shatil-coordinated Project WEALTH: Promoting Local Sustainable Economic Development (LSED), held its final International Visibility Conference this Tuesday. Over three extraordinarily successful years, the project demonstrated how an alternative, locally oriented and environmentally just initiative can provide real on-the-ground solutions for the Negev’s economic challenges.

“Government agencies, local and regional councils, and small and medium sized businesses have all adopted our ideas and are implementing them on the ground,” says Shatil’s Dr. Gili Baruch, who directs Project WEALTH.

The program has earned significant praise. Dr. Orly Ronen of Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies said she is truly impressed with the change that it has generated in such a short period of time. Italian Parliament Member Giulio Marcon explained how policy recommendations for wellbeing have been incorporated in a bill recently legislated by the Italian parliament; and Dr. Taleb Alharty of Shiraa, a Project partner based in Bethlehem, presented a pilot women’s employment initiative which has been implemented through the Project.

The Project’s impact in the Negev was best expressed, however, by the local stakeholders. Vered Goshen, Deputy Director of the Negev Development Authority (NDA), explained how the NDA has since adopted the concepts. One of the NDA’s goals is to ensure that revenue generated by “Anchor Institutions” – prominent local institutions that form the bulwark of the Negev’s economy (e.g. Ben Gurion University and Soroka Hospital) – trickles down to local businesses and does not “leak out of the region.” To inform the public of local initiatives and connect between them and larger institutions, the NDA built an internet database listing local businesses and the services they provide, as a conduit for larger institutions who should be “hiring local.” During last summer’s Gaza War, the number of visits to the database grew exponentially as support of Negev-based businesses became popular as a way of supporting the beleaguered region. The connections built then have since evolved into concrete plans to acquire holiday employee gifts from Negev-based small businesses on an annual basis.

Yeruham Mayor, Michael Biton also spoke at the Conference, stressing how the town has leveraged LSED concepts to build a local tourist infrastructure which is creating economic opportunities for the town’s residents. Just this year the town opened a new hotel that will rely on local workers and channel revenue back to the community. Shatil helped establish a Yeruham Tour Operators Forum which aims to increase opportunities for the town’s tourist industry. Local residents have launched diverse initiatives leveraging the town’s unique cultural heritage and geographic resources such as a women’s cooperative that will produce and market Argan Oil, a traditional Moroccan oil which can be used as a cosmetic product or cooking oil and which has gained recognition for its health and beauty benefits.

As economies become more globalized, it is evident that peripheral communities must adapt in ways that sustain local businesses. Over three years, Project WEALTH has instilled the concept of Local Sustainable Economic Development in the Negev and built an infrastructure of local initiatives that will continue to promote LSED as an alternative solution to economic challenges like those facing Dimona. Looking forward, we believe we can leverage this success to create a sustainable Negev, dependent entirely on its own human and natural resources.