Beyond Aid: Layla Kaiksow Pushing Economic Growth for Palestine
Layla Kaiksow, 25, has a vision for Palestine, and it does not involve humanitarian aid. Instead, she is focused on its economic growth. In 2004 she started work as the Project Manager for the Palestine Fair Trade Association. This organization’s purpose was to bring the delicious and famous olive oil of Palestine to nations around the world by connecting local farmers with international markets. This project eventually expanded to olive oil soap, hand-made baskets, and other crafts. Layla is currently in charge of fundraising and public relations for the SOS Children’s Village-Bethlehem. One of the largest milestones in this project was the building of a playground for the children at SOS. Although Layla continues to lend support to all the projects she has created, she is always finding new ways to help. Currently she has a vision to support the growth of small to medium businesses in Palestine, with an emphasis on job creation and youth employment. Learn more about Layla and her dedication to the economic growth in Palestine as we feature her in this week’s Non-Profit Spotlight.
Layla A. Kaiksow
University of London
School of Oriental and African Studies
MSc in Development Studies
University of California-Davis
Womyn and Gender Studies
and War and Peace Studies
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)
Muslim Students Association (MSA)
Third World Forum (TWF)
SOS Children’s Village-Bethlehem
Rural Womyn’s Development Society (RWDS)
Nur Al-Bar’ah School for Speech Therapy and Special Disabilities
The American University of Jenin
Palestine Fair Trade Association
SOS Children’s Village-Bethlehem
Fundraising and Public Relations
March 2006,-September 2006)
Marketing and Project Manager
October 2005-March 2006
Palestine Fair Trade Association
January 2004-September 2005
UC-Davis Cross-Cultural Center
Middle Eastern Community Intern
June 2002-June 2003
About your involvement with activism and non-profit work
As a university student I was quite active with several student groups, we organized events, planned demonstrations, advocated student senate to make a stand against Zionism and the war in Afghanistan and the impending war in Iraq.
When I first arrived in Palestine I spent many months volunteering with various organizations to get my feet wet so to speak and try my hand at different fields of work within the development industry.
I then linked up with a Palestinian American colleague that I knew through student activism in the US. Together we began working on creating a fair trade project in Palestine that would help to link Palestinian farmers with fair trade buyers in the Global North. This is where the idea for the Palestine Fair Trade Association was born – it was meant to be a fair trade educator and supporter here in Palestine. Initially this project focused mainly on olive oil and with time spread to other products such as olive oil soap, hand-made baskets, and other crafts.
I left this project when I felt I had no more to give and was ready to move on and try new things. I am still a supporter of fair trade in Palestine and try to support the industry in any way that I can.
This is when I joined Ma’an Network to manage a project for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) that was a series of trainings to educate various forms of journalists (radio, tv, newspaper, etc.) how to report fairly and accurately on elections – this was gearing up for the Palestinian elections held in early 2006. Meanwhile we also sought funding for another project which was funded by the Danish Cooperation Agency in order to create a voter participation campaign using TV media.
After this i joined the SOS Children’s Village-Bethlehem, an organization that I had done various volunteer work for in the past. I was now hired as a full-time employee in charge of fundraising and public relations.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
Depending on what the job was my day to day responsibilities differ, but most of my jobs are project management so daily activities consisted of planning timescales for the various projects and making sure that we were able to stick to them and progress in order to finish the project in a professional and timely manner.
How did you get started with this work?
My student activism for Palestine was really inspired by my eldest sister Sarah, [and] the events of September 11, 2001 only pushed my interests further. My impetus to go to Palestine was spurred by a desire to put my money where my mouth was, not just to fight and scream and advocate about Palestine from the US but to also go there and work in these places I was always talking about.
Since my arrival it has been a personal journey. I have learned and experienced many things that have challenged my initial perceptions of what Palestine would be like. Not all that I have learned and encountered has been positive but I believe that is the reality of life. My commitment to change the tide here in Palestine has not wavered, in fact the opposite, it has become stronger, and my experience here on the ground has given me inside knowledge to know how I can best be of service.
Most notable milestones
The first grant received for the Palestine Fair Trade Association was from the British Consulate – this was a huge step for us since this project literally started as an idea and two committed people working on their laptops. This first grant allowed us to create brochures, education material, and host two-part workshops that educated about fair trade, what it means, how to qualify for fair trade, and the second part consisted of more technical aspects concerning how to produce high-quality olive oil for export to the EU, US, and Canada. The workshops were held in various villages in the Jenin, Nablus, and Ramallah districts. It was a great success and we were able register over 1,000 farmers into the fair trade project.
Another point of great pride was when we were able to build a brand new playground for our children at the SOS Children’s Village-Bethlehem with charitable donations from Bahrain and also a Palestinian businessman. The children enjoy the playground everyday and it always pleases me that we were able to fulfill this need for the children.
What is unique about the work that you do?
I think one of the things that makes the work I do unique is that I am constantly moving around &ndash if I feel that i have given all I can to a project. If things are running smoothly, I like to move on and try something new. I do stay in touch with most organizations that I have worked for in the past – always offering my services and support if they need them.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Finding good honest people to work with. When I first moved to Palestine I naively thought that all Palestinians would of course work together against this common Israeli enemy; while the truth is that there are many internal politics and alliances that often get in the way of working together as a unified people. The biggest challenge for me has been to find people to work with who I feel do not compromise their politics in order to gain funding from abroad or who work from their hearts and not with their wallets in mind. In my four years working in Palestine the SOS Children’s Village-Bethlehem has been the most exemplary organization who are true to their values of caring for orphaned children and do not compromise themselves in order to reach their goals. They are committed to their children with all the best intentions and this is what has kept me going back to offer my support to them year after year.
What’s in store for the future?
I have grown tired of the NGO industry and am hoping to branch out and do some projects on my own. I have a vision to support the growth of small to medium businesses in Palestine with an emphasis on job creation and youth employment. I believe that Palestinians deserve to live a dignified life that they have worked for and not to constantly depend on hand-outs from international donors to provide basic services. Palestine needs to fight to have her own economy – I believe that with economic growth and job creation Palestinians can gain more bargaining power within the political sphere as well.
Palestinians are some of the most educated Arabs and I am hoping to tap into that resource of expatriate Palestinians to support economic development in Palestine. The idea is economic growth and development and not humanitarian/development aid because in the end, this is not sustainable and it leaves Palestinians beholden to international demands as we have seen with the recent international boycott of the democratically elected Palestinian government.
The crux of the fair trade project was similar to this idea: Palestinians have a delicious and famous olive oil product to offer to the world. Unfortunately, Israeli Occupation stifles and complicates trade with the outside and fair trade is a good solution to assist these farmers in gaining access to international markets.
After living in Palestine I can see that there are areas of the economy that can be supported and developed – we need patience and creativity and this will lead to success.
Best way to keep a competitive edge
I suppose to keep perspective in life and realize that no matter what you are up against there is always something that you can do that does not compromise who you are. The trick is to find that niche and work with it.
Guiding principle in life
Never compromise who you are and what you believe in order to gain a greater goal, because once you get there you won’t be happy anymore
Yardstick of success
Level of sanity vs. insanity.
Goal yet to be achieved
I still want to travel to India and travel around by train and meet people there to learn about their struggles. India has been the home of so many indigenous movements that have fought the erasure of their lifestyles and I so would like to meet these people.
Best practical advice
Try to do the least damage to the earth and others around you.
My mother because she is a strong womyn who always has hope and love in her heart.
My father because he never compromises his beliefs.
What motivated you to get started?
A belief that humanity can be better then we are.
Like best about what you do?
It keeps me alive and on my feet.
Like least about what you do?
It makes me cry.
What have you learned during this work that suprised you?
Palestinians are not as united as one may think, but neither are Israelis….
The development industry (local NGOs, international NGOs, donors, etc..) are not as altruistic as one may think. Everything is political.
What advice would you give others who are interested in getting involved?
Be ready to learn. Don’t take it personally when things don’t work out your way, and go for it with all your heart.
At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
What was your first job?
Biggest pastime outside of work
Depends on which phase of my life we are talking about, has been swimming, horseback riding, reading, hanging out with family and friends, etc.
Person most interested in meeting?
Karl Marx, to see what he would have to say about where we are today.
Three interesting facts about yourself
- I’m a closet 70’s fan.
- I love to dance but not very good at it.
- I love to sing but am not very good at it.
Three characteristics that describe you
Three greatest passions
- Friends and family
Too many great books to chose one.
Of course, Palestine.
Favorite travel destination
Madison, Wisconsin to see my family.
Who would you like to be contacted by?
I am interested in linking up with anyone interested in supporting small to medium investment projects in Palestine. The fight is for economic independence which can help support the struggle for political independence. I have many ideas and am open to speaking with NGOs, companies, and individuals interested in such ideas.
Interview by Nadia Abou-Karr
Introduction by Sabine Alam
Edited by Valerie Enriquez