Photo via MercyCorps

We’ve got more than our share of tech-geeks here in Seattle. You know, the guys who work at startups, or Microsoft or Amazon, creating the next-generation of computer and web products.

But we can’t claim geeks as our own. You’ll find them anywhere there’s an electric current and a connection to the Internet, even in that besieged strip of land in the Middle East called Gaza.

Portland-based aid group MercyCorps is partnering with Google and Startup Weekend, a Seattle-area tech nonprofit, to bridge the chasm between American software developers and their counterparts in the Gaza strip. And they’re calling on Seattle’s tech community to support Palestinian startup companies, whether through virtual mentoring or social investing.

As the program’s leaders explained in a panel discussion hosted by MercyCorps in Seattle last week, Palestinian geeks went wild in a 54-hour marathon “Startup Weekend” last month. You can see young developers positively brimming with enthusiasm in this video.

“When you go to Gaza with Google, they just light up,” said Andy Dwonch, Senior Director for Social Innovations at MercyCorps.

One of the developer proposals was for Gaza Places, the Palestinian version of Google Maps (Google’s satellites haven’t mapped out the blockaded territory.) There were several pitches for applications that helped devout Muslims keep track of daily prayer times.

Ansel Herz

But in the end, the “Take Your Medicine” app took the weekend’s top prize, which can remind you or your grandmother to take your pills. The top three teams are being considered for funding of their proposal, contingent on a review of their completed business plans.

Poverty and unemployment levels are high in the Gaza Strip, in large part due to the crippling Israeli blockade. At the same time, it’s a highly-educated society, with a 99 percent literacy rate. Gisel Kordestani, formerly the Director of New Business Development at Google, pointed out that there’s little censorship of the Internet in Gaza, unlike places like Syria or Egypt.

Plus, she said, Palestinian developers can be employed for far less than someone in Silicon Valley. “The ultimate goal is new companies, and hopefully a lot of jobs,” Dwonch added.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, you should always talk to the supposed beneficiaries of aid programs before assuming they’re effective. I haven’t had the chance to do that here, but Dwonch, who has worked for years in the Gaza Strip, recognized the issues of exploitation and ineffectiveness that plague much of what he called “the aid industry.” He said this project was “an effort to get away from that.”

MercyCorps has a reputation for succeeding in delivering aid and implementing programs where others have failed, and Kordestani pointed out that they were the only group that could get past the restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities.

There’s $500,000 in the Arab Developer Network Initiative Fund right now, thanks to investments from Google, MercyCorps, and foundations. MercyCorps’ ambitious goal is to fund 15-20 companies over two years, so they’re looking for anyone who’s interested to get involved and help expand the project.

I asked Andie Long, a communications officer for MercyCorps, the silly question of why they held their panel discussion in Seattle, rather than their headquarters in Portland. “There’s a plethora of tech companies here that could get involved,” she said, in a nod to the preponderance of geeks in our city, some of whom she hopes will become partners, or even employers for the Palestinian developers.

As one of the other panelists suggested, if a developer from say, Amazon, could take one hour a week to do virtual mentoring, “they [Palestinians] would love that.”

To learn more, check out MercyCorps’ website.

Ansel Herz blogs about everything international in Seattle for the Seattle Globalist, a blog from the Common Language Project, a new journalism nonprofit based at the University of Washington. Follow the blog on Twitter @seaglobalist or reach him at ansel@clpmag.org.

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