Israel was a poor country in the 1950s, struggling to feed its people and fend off threats from its Arab enemies.
Yet, during this austere period of its formative history, Israel’s Agency for International Development Co-operation, known as Mashav, dispatched a cadre of experts to the developing world and invited thousands of overseas students to its universities to take part in training programs in a variety of fields.
“We were sharing with others,” said Haim Divon, who headed Mashav, an arm of the Foreign Ministry, from 2005 to 2011. “It was a basic Zionist notion.”
Divon, who was Israel’s ambassador to Canada before being appointed to his position at Mashav, delivered these comments at a Canadian Friends of Hebrew University function last week.
A graduate of the Hebrew University, he spoke about Mashav’s role in bringing know-how and expertise to the developing world and the university’s contribution to that objective.
Created in 1957, when many Israelis were still dependent on care packages from relatives abroad, Mashav began as a modest program steeped in the Jewish philosophy of tikun olam, repairing the world.
Dedicated to promoting sustainable development in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Mashav grew rapidly, like Israel itself.
“We worked with agents of change to improve societies,” said Divon, who is currently Israel’s ambassador to the Netherlands.
Since its establishment, Mashav has sent thousands of experts, from agronomists to physicians, to African, Asian and Latin American nations, and invited more than 200,000 Africans, Asians and Latin Americans to Israel to participate in its array of training programs.
A considerable number of the experts were Hebrew University graduates, Divon noted.
Lovemore Nkhata Malunga, a citizen of Malawi, spent about two years in Israel completing a master’s degree at the Hebrew University’s faculty of agriculture under the auspices of Mashav.
Malunga, a soft-spoken man currently studying for a PhD in food science at the University of Manitoba, used the knowledge he acquired in Israel to revolutionize nutrition in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest, least developed countries.
A landlocked nation in southeast Africa with a population of nearly 14 million, Malawi is dependent on foreign aid and suffers from a high infant mortality rate.
Not too long ago, Malunga said, 20 per cent of Malawian children died before they reached the age of five.
“We can’t produce enough food to feed ourselves,” he said.
But drawing on his education in Israel, Malunga set up a nationwide program in villages to launch the process of eradicating malnutrition in Malawi.
He said his studies at the Hebrew University were a turning point in his life, teaching him that a country as lacking in natural resources as Israel can manage, and even thrive, in the modern world.