Abigail Klein Leichman
September 27, 2023

On a visit to western Africa in 1958, Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir saw the moral and political potential in helping Africans through severe developmental challenges in food security, water safety, sanitation, healthcare, education, economics, community building and gender equality.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed. And so, a tiny new country with way more chutzpah than resources established MASHAV – Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation within the Foreign Ministry. 

“Golda and Ben-Gurion thought that Israel, as a struggling 10-year-old country, could already contribute skills and knowhow to young African nations that were coming into being in the 1950s and 1960s,” says MASHAV Director Eynat Shlein. 

“There are plenty of development agencies around the world, but I don’t know of another country that started a development agency when it was still developing.” 

MASHAV has two intertwined goals: activating the Jewish value of tikkun olam (bettering the world) and creating political goodwill. 

The inspiring story of Israel’s 65 years of aid to Africa
Callista Jennie Mutharika, ambassador of Malawi to Israel, meeting with MASHAV Director Eynat Shlein to discuss ongoing agriculture, food safety and sustainability development projects. Photo courtesy of MASHAV

Economics never figured into this equation, says Shlein.

“MASHAV is there to provide economic growth and income to the developing countries, not to Israel,” she tells ISRAEL21c. 

“We’re happy to share our inventions, techniques, best practices and innovations for countries to make better use of their own resources. If we get economic gains out of it, I’m not against that — but that’s not why we do it,” she emphasizes. 

Still, the door that MASHAV opened has allowed many Israel companies to do well by doing good. 

Recent examples: Irrigation giant Netafim unveiled a ready-to-farm “coworking space” for smallholder farmers in Rwanda, equipped with sustainable water and energy networks; Gigawatt Global is investing $100 million in a hybrid solar and wind power project in Zambia; and Pears Challenge – a venture-builder empowering Israel-based entrepreneurs to build impactful startups to address global challenges – opened registration for its sixth cycle, focusing on developing technological solutions to improve accessibility of financial services in East Africa.

Agriculture, health, education

Today, MASHAV is involved in all 43 African countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, and sends emergency aid to others. It also has development projects in about 100 countries outside of Africa. 

MASHAV paved the way for Israelis from the healthcare, academic and nonprofit world to become intensively involved in helping African countries in agriculture, health and education. 

In just the past few months, Israeli aid to Africa has included, among others, hospital-sponsored surgical missions to Ethiopia and Uganda; a PICO Kids food security makeathon in Tanzania; a multi-partner pediatric cardiology initiative in Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire); and Engineers Without Borders – Israel’s school-based R&D center for growing high-protein spirulina in Kenya. 

The inspiring story of Israel’s 65 years of aid to Africa
Partners and families of the Mitrelli Group, the Menomadin Foundation, Save a Child’s Heart and the Ivory Coast Health Ministry gather to celebrate a capacity-building initiative in pediatric cardiac surgery. Photo courtesy of Mitrelli Group

About 40 Israeli non-governmental organizations (NGOs) actively foster African development, according to Dana Manor of SID Israel (Society for International Development), an umbrella organization whose members work with international partners. 

How Israelis improve, save lives in Africa
CoCuDi works toward gender equality in Uganda. Photo by Kiggundu Rawdney
Israeli NGOs have emerged as significant players in addressing nearly all 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa, aligning their humanitarian actions and development initiatives efforts with the global agenda to achieve a more sustainable and equitable future.
Read more

Let’s look more deeply at MASHAV’s work in Africa and how it continues to inspire other Israeli initiatives. 

Capacity building

In the early days, MASHAV built a lot of infrastructure in Africa, including parliaments and government offices. Shlein says the agency came to realize that these projects are better left to private stakeholders. 

MASHAV has, however, continued building healthcare facilities, such as intensive-care units in Eritrea, Togo, Tanzania, South Sudan and Chad; an eye hospital in Kenya; and a neonatal clinic in Ghana. 

The inspiring story of Israel’s 65 years of aid to Africa
Israeli Ambassador to Senegal Ben Bourgel and Chad Minister of Health Dr. Abdelmadjid Abderahim preside over the graduation ceremony of the Emergency & Trauma Course conducted by Israeli medical experts at the new Trauma Unit donated and established by MASHAV in N’Djamena General Hospital, Chad. Photo courtesy of MASHAV

MASHAV partners with Israeli hospitals to provide ongoing training for the nurses, doctors and paramedics staffing these units. And that reflects its main focus today: capacity building.

Capacity building is defined as developing and strengthening local skills, abilities, processes and resources. 

The inspiring story of Israel’s 65 years of aid to Africa
A garri (cassava) processing pavilion was donated to Asuboi, Ghana, by MASHAV and the Embassy of Israel, October 2022. Photo courtesy of MASHAV

Successful capacity building ensures that each sustainable, tailormade project initiated by MASHAV — in close cooperation with the host government and partners from the public and private sectors – can be scaled up and run independently by the local community. 

“We have a strong brand in capacity building and address a lot of our resources toward human capital,” Shlein tells ISRAEL21c. “This is our most significant achievement.”

Training for independence

Some 350,000 people from African and other developing nations have graduated from MASHAV training programs.

The inspiring story of Israel’s 65 years of aid to Africa
Israel’s Ambassador to Zambia Ofra Farhi and MASHAV Director Eynat Shlein with Lawrence Mwananyanda, special assistant to the president of Zambia, discussing follow-up activities for MASHAV graduates in Zambia. Photo courtesy of MASHAV

The agency has three inhouse training centers in Israel: the Golda Meir MASHAV-Carmel International Training Center that deals mainly with gender equality, entrepreneurship and innovation; MASHAV Agricultural Training Center that deals with water and agriculture issues; and the Aharon Ofri MASHAV International Educational Training Center that deals with education and community resilience.

External extension partners include, among others, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training

“We try to find the right partners for each project and bring the right stakeholders to the table – local or foreign,” says Shlein.

Examples of intensive long-term projects undertaken by MASHAV and partners include training all early childhood educators in Ghana and training Ethiopian smallholder farmers to grow avocados for export to the European market. 

“In Rwanda, we have a center of excellence for vegetables,” adds Shlein. “We had an expert posted there for four years and now it’s independent. That’s a successful example of capacity building in sustainable development.”

The next chapter

Thanks to the groundwork laid by MASHAV over the past 65 years, many Israeli initiatives are bringing positive change to Africa.

“Africans feel a strong connection to Israel,” says Prof. Lynn Schler, director of African studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and its new African Sustainable Communities master’s degree program taught in English.

“We are the only ones in the world doing this,” Schler says.

The inspiring story of Israel’s 65 years of aid to Africa
Prof. Lynn Schler. Photo by Dani Machlis/BGU

The program, in which two-thirds of students are African and the rest from Israel and abroad, presents cutting-edge approaches to environmental, economic, social and cultural sustainability in arid and semi-arid regions.

“Some of our students have been to Israel before for MASHAV courses. Others have never been on a plane before,” says Schler.

“We provide for all their needs through two generous donors who believe Israel has a deep historic connection to many places in the continent. We are the next chapter in that, and are cognizant of trying to build upon that history and legacy.”

Practical projects

Students complete one year of study at BGU and then do at least a three-month practicum in Africa. 

Projects have included, for instance, renewable energy for agritech in Uganda; financial literacy in Uganda; plastic recycling in rural Kenya; disability access in Ghana; and a safe space for children in Mozambique.

“An American student implemented menstrual health and hygiene classes in a rural Zambian village and then got a job at USAID. Two of our African students are now in Vanuatu and Dominica as interns with IsraAID,” says Schler.

Israeli embassies in Africa help BGU recruit students. The first two cohorts of 23 each included participants from Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The third cohort begins in the fall. 

Bottom up

As with MASHAV, the emphasis at BGU is on mobilizing local stakeholders to ensure the projects can continue under local ownership.

“Everyone knows how to install a water pump in a village,” says Schler, “but 60% of water pumps installed in African villages aren’t working after one year — not because of technology issues but because communities don’t always engage with these projects. 

“If you go there without an understanding of the local culture, politics, ethnic hierarchies, economics, sociology and religion, you won’t succeed. In our approach, everyone understands how broad the conversation needs to be and how many perspectives must be taken into consideration.”

What does the university stand to gain?

“We are getting in return no less because we learn so much from these students,” says Schler. “They bring such vibrancy to the BGU community; they keep us engaged and knowledgeable about what is happening there.”

More on Life

More on Humanitarian Aid