A 35-year career diplomat, Ambassador Haim Divon strives to share Israeli expertise with the developing world according to its needs, while working tirelessly to refute negative perceptions of Israel abroad.
By Abigail Klein Leichman
Haim Divon was just eight years old in 1958, when Israel launched MASHAV, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Agency for International Development Cooperation. If as a child he had contemplated such matters, he might have found it curious, even audacious, that Israeli leaders already felt prepared to share their know-how with the rest of the developing world. At the time, his Jerusalem family was still experiencing food shortages and austerity rationing that would not end until 1960.
"You have to know the people, to know the country." Haim Divon, deputy director-general of the MFA and the head of Mashav. firstname.lastname@example.org
But as deputy director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the current head of MASHAV, it makes perfect sense to him. "I heard [first Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion talking about our moral obligation to share with others at a time when we had no food and had to absorb more people than our actual population," Divon recounts. "He was a pragmatist but also a philosopher. That is where I come from."
Putting Israel’s own creative solutions at the disposal of developing nations, MASHAV took on the same weighty objectives that the United Nations more recently formalized as its priority development goals: Poverty alleviation; food security; sustainable development; empowerment of women; child and maternal health; social equity; environmental sustainability; and upgraded public health and education systems.
In the years since then, MASHAV professionals have trained some 200,000 participants from approximately 140 countries in Israel and abroad, and developed dozens of demonstration projects worldwide in fields of Israeli expertise.
Divon, a 35-year career diplomat, first took the helm at MASHAV in 1995. He brought with him experience from postings in Bombay, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. "It was more than eye-opening to see what was happening out there," he says. "What hits you is the real meaning of poverty and human suffering. In the western hemisphere we live in a bubble and we don’t grasp the real challenges of this global village of ours, which is getting smaller."
"What a way to serve the country!"
An attorney by training, Divon had long been excited by the idea of diplomacy. "We had no TV as kids, but our parents subscribed to National Geographic magazine, and I lived off it," he recalls. In addition, many of his physician father’s patients were in Israel’s Foreign Service sector, and the young Divon relished hearing about the exotic places they had visited.
"What a way to serve the country!" he remembers thinking. "I love people and communication, and I feel that I can bring a different face of Israel wherever we go. You have to know the people to know the country."
After serving as Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Divon returned to MASHAV in 2005. He is now steering the agency in a new direction, orienting its staff to find out exactly what each country needs from Israel rather than continuing with a blanket educational approach.
Mashav has been delivering Israeli aid to developing countries since 1958 (Photo: MASHAV)
Up until around the year 2000, he explains, MASHAV would offer similar projects such as drip irrigation year after year, and people from many countries were invited to come and learn. This approach was not without positive outcomes, particularly in the area of general goodwill.
Divon explains: "Many people, when they come to Israel, are affected by CNN and BBC headlines, and their families don’t want them to come here. Often we receive them at the airport and they are shocked that the airport is so nice. Then they leave the airport and they are shocked to see that we have real highways. At some point, they say, ‘Wait a minute! This doesn’t fit with what we thought.’ On top of that, there are friendly people here who provide solutions for them. They leave as enthusiastic and huge admirers of Israel."
But Divon began wondering what participants did with their newfound knowledge when they returned home. Did they make real inroads in agronomy, animal husbandry, emergency preparedness, and education? Or did they simply go back to sitting in a government office cubicle with little more to show for the experience than personal admiration for the Jewish state?
Driven by demands
If the goal was to be ‘active change’ rather than ‘attitude change,’ MASHAV’s mode of operation needed dramatic overhauling.
"If you look back 50 years, so much money was poured into so many countries and where are the results? We realized that participants in our programs have to be agents of change, and there have to be goals," Divon continues, "We had to change. And most of the big aid agencies overseas, such as the UN, adopted the same new approach."
Today, MASHAV is a demand-driven agency. "We ask, ‘What are the needs of your country?’ and then we assess how we can help. They have a macro picture of how we can fit our strengths to their needs. By coordinating better with our partner countries and with third parties, we have a better chance to succeed."
Because his own life has followed Israel’s trajectory from poverty to plenty, Divon keenly appreciates what it takes for a nation to succeed: "I didn’t know what a mango or an avocado was when I was a kid. I ate a mango for the first time when I was posted in India. And now, one of our programs is helping India improve their mango crops."
Foreign agencies such as US-AID lent Israel assistance along the way, and Divon believes that Israel is obligated to return the favor – even if it still has its own struggles. "Americans didn’t say, ‘We have our own homeless, so can’t afford to assist others.’ "
Beyond practical solutions, he adds, Israel also strives to convey the spirit that continues to see it through rough times. "All the experts who come to Israel divide the question in two: ‘What are your approaches and technologies?’ and ‘Where does your spirit come from?’ In spite of our difficulties we were able to move ahead, and so can they."
A visiting Indian government minister recently composed a poem in homage to his host country, Divon relates, adding, "I’m proud that small Israel is a place others want to learn from because they see tangible results."
The multilingual Divon met his New York-born wife, Linda, when she came to the Hebrew University on a one-year exchange program in 1969. "The one year turned into 40," Divon says with a smile. The Divons live in the Jerusalem bedroom community of Mevasseret Zion. But because of their frequent and broad travels, he refers to his family, which includes three grown children, as "citizens of the world." Linda has involved herself in projects wherever they go, such as a Canadian ‘peace camp’ for Israeli and Palestinian children that grew out of their youngest daughter’s vision. This power couple belongs to a line-dancing club and also enjoys ballroom dancing. "For me, the best way to unwind is with aerobics," Divon confides.
He truly needs his energy. Divon also is CEO of a government company, Igud, which provides MASHAV with a platform to run extension centers in Israel and to recruit Israeli experts who form its permanent nucleus. And he personally oversees the development of tailor-made programs for specific countries.
One of the newest projects is helping Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, to establish a strategic planning unit to empower periphery cities. After an Israeli MASHAV affiliate devised a concept that was enthusiastically endorsed by Kenyan officials and the international donor community, the Kisumu mayor arranged to come to Israel for a study tour. Bringing change agents to Israel remains a key part of the strategy.
"We have a nursery project in Ethiopia, so we brought the head agronomist here to see what we are doing in biotech and irrigation – anything related to his nursery’s needs," states Divon. "He learned how to develop a state-of-the-art nursery to grow the highest quality mangoes and avocados for export."
Ethiopia’s rural farmers are the backbone of the national economy, "so they must boost their quality and diversity for local consumption, and exports must meet certain standards. We can show them how. We must be linked to development programs at the country level so we can support and enhance them with whatever we’re good at."
Conflict, not cooperation, makes headlines
Medicine is another area Israel is "good at." Adding to a long string of medical missions in many countries, MASHAV recently facilitated the creation of neonatal and intensive care units at hospitals in Ghana and Kenya and will be establishing an ICU at a hospital in Haiti’s capital city. This summer, it hosted a contingent of educators from Moscow. "You had to see their enthusiasm; they were full of appreciation," says Divon.
However grateful recipients of MASHAV aid may be, however, Divon is frustrated by the lack of press recognition for his agency’s far-reaching work. Conflict, he observes, makes for more attractive news than does cooperation.
"Imagine how people would look up to Israel if every activity in every country we are involved in would get front-page headlines," he challenges. "In the developing world, they appreciate our help. When there is a natural disaster, we quickly mobilize and send experts, and their doors are open. We have good approaches to alleviate suffering. But Israel is still perceived as a country of receivers."
A recent case in point is MASHAV’s aid mission to the city of Sange in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Following a July 2 fuel tanker explosion, resulting in the deaths of more than 250 people and injuries to almost 200, MASHAV dispatched a delegation of six doctors from Sheba Medical Center with medical equipment – before any other country responded.
The result of such efforts gives Israel accessibility for future projects, notes Divon. "The road is open to other possibilities that every ambassador is looking for." Yet even these high profile achievements have little effect on negative attitudes toward Israel, including at the UN, he points out.
Divon’s many aspirations for MASHAV are not easy to achieve on a total budget of about $20 million – an amount the Minister for Foreign Affairs would like to triple. Demands for Israeli know-how continue to grow, especially now that Israel is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"We’re putting our emphasis on human capacity building rather than infrastructure, because we believe that is the best and most effective investment," Divon concludes.