Why a Deep Demonstration in Palestine?

UNDP Strategic Innovation
7 min readMay 26, 2021


By: Tala El-Yousef, Ismail Abu Arafeh and Ruba Aladham (UNDP Palestine)

La Patisserie Abu Seir is one of the small businesses the deep demo team visited to gain first-hand insights on what a resilient, inclusive economy means to SMEs

Since first joining UNDP’s Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (UNDP/PAPP) under the new Accelerator Labs, we felt overwhelmed by the sheer number and diversity of the portfolio of programmes and projects. Four months into our positions, we felt the need to undertake a sensemaking exercise to help the office reflect on the cohesion of its portfolios, identify synergies and gaps, and meaningfully break silos. Leveraging on this momentum, we were presented with an opportunity to partake in a UNDP effort to build capabilities for “system-transformation”. This approach aims to go beyond the linear and siloed business as usual and develop a portfolio of coherent interventions for complex, wicked policy issues.

Under both endeavours, our policy focus was on youth and their engagement in agricultural value chains. While mapping what we were doing under this space, it became evident that there is a need to explore structural root causes of inequalities. As such, the focus gradually shifted as we realized that the agricultural sector is a mere symptom of a much broader, systemic set of dynamics that are inhibiting the design of a more inclusive and resilient economic system. So, we reframed the initial issue and took a different vantage point; one where UNDP/PAPP can play a catalytic role in transforming the current economic system into a more inclusive one that has resilient measures to cope and regenerate itself after shocks.

Why a new systems-way of working?

Addressing an issue as broad and complex as an inclusive, resilient economy requires much more than what current UNDP/PAPP programming offers. Previous projects have sought to tackle poverty, youth economic empowerment, agri-business support, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) development as stand-alone issues. However, none of these projects was viewing the over-arching economic eco-system and how it can substantially benefit a critical mass of people in an inclusive manner. Each project would also often involve only a certain type of stakeholders related to that particular issue (such as youth or agriculture).

This is what is particularly useful in systems-thinking: digging deep at the root causes and introducing an integrated catalytic portfolio of interventions with broad groups of stakeholders to trigger systemic change. Tackling issues that are big and complex requires humility, recognizing that no individual institution, government, or company can provide the solution alone. Understandably, such an approach requires a great deal of engagement and ownership by stakeholders and communities. This is why the “Studio Sequence,” a cornerstone of our partner Snowcone and Haystack’s methodology, is particularly interesting. The purpose of the studio sequence is to work with a diverse group of stakeholders to define a shared challenge-framing that aligns interests and provides an opportunity for sustainable impact.

As part of planning a studio sequence, we identified three major vehicles to explore dynamics that keep the economic system stuck where it is and to begin understanding and aligning the intents of various partners with a stake in this issue. These include a UNDP/PAPP internal framing studio, a donor/agency exploration workshop, and a Palestinian stakeholders’ engagement studio (see visual). The UNDP/PAPP studio helped better frame the agenda and unpack what a resilient, inclusive economy could look like. The donor exploration workshop was a more restrained one, where participating agencies felt more comfortable acknowledging the importance of working in this space but showed more interest in hearing from implementing agencies where support should be directed. The more promising and dynamic studio (which this blog will focus on primarily) was the stakeholders one where a new kind of dialogue was initiated. Following wide office consultations on whom to engage in this studio, around ten diverse and dynamic individuals were invited to join the stakeholder group, including economists, entrepreneurs, investors, and seasoned private sector associates. The visual below shows how the studio helped build stakeholder alignment around a certain framing of the challenge at hand.

Dynamics of a Genuine Engagement

Although the office has previously engaged with many of these stakeholders, we realized that genuine engagement requires a different approach. Rather than consulting and validating pre-determined assumptions, we tried to collectively acknowledge the failure of the current economic system and the need to together shape up a new one. There was a sense of curiosity in the way we framed and asked questions and an acknowledgement that we as UNDP/PAPP do not have the answers. We started the stakeholder’s studio with an affirmation that what we have been doing in the past decades was not enough to make the change that we collectively aspire to. Approaching these stakeholders with humility brought a few nods and praise for admitting failure.

This way of engaging with stakeholders opened the door for different and very insightful perspectives. For instance, in the context of informality, one stakeholder noted: “they [small and micro enterprises] want to remain unofficial, they want to stay within their family, they do not want anyone to look into their finances; they want to avoid paying taxes; these are huge barriers in accessing finances;”, and similarly: “Palestine functions despite informality, and yet also because of informality.” These types of insights fed into a new and more contextually grounded narrative around economic resilience in the State of Palestine.

Working in abstracts

Systems thinking and the challenge of tackling a resilient and inclusive economy requires a great deal of working in abstracts. The main challenge for us was to agree on the concepts of ‘resilient’ and ‘inclusive’ especially with finding equivalent Arabic terminology. However, working in these abstract, over-arching concepts resulted in an interesting flow of thoughts around the historical evolution and anticipated economic system Palestinians want. This flow is contrary to the usual concrete thinking and consultations we engage in with stakeholders, where they advise on specific, chronological steps of a development project/programme. Yet, there was an increasing sense that we need to use a blend of concrete and abstract thinking to have a studio output that we can work with. Overall, the discussions at this abstract level created a sense of ownership among stakeholders, a feel that they are shaping up the development path UNDP/PAPP and other development agencies should pursue.

Working with informality

One of the major insights picked through the stakeholder studio was around working in informality (how to work with unregistered businesses) which are the backbone of the Palestinian economy. It was revealing to hear from top economists and business owners how they favourably perceived the role of SMEs, particularly during a crisis. We had already encountered such attitudes prior, but the swift COVID-19 adaptation by the Palestinian economy led by the SMEs turned many doubters into believers of the significant role informal businesses could play in economic activity.

Another key insight was around resilient mechanisms in an economy. While we always tend to think of a need for a stimulus or capacity building intervention to make the economy more resilient, it was thought-provoking to hear from economists on the tools and mechanisms that build the resilience of businesses. Excellent examples were provided on the need for shock-absorbing mechanisms in times of crisis, such as introducing alternative marketing outlets when major retail stores are closed or diversified fiscal policy to maintain stability and avoid volatility. These two insights combined might indicate a shift in broader perception about the role of informality in responding to shocks? Might this indicate an opening of the space to rethink how to build better conditions for resilient economic activity that may be happening across different spaces (formal, informal, alternative)?

Crafting interventions for an inclusive, resilient economy

While the free flow of thought created genuine engagement with stakeholders, coming up with more concrete focus areas for our interventions was a difficult task. Yet, an ever-evolving narrative was initiated with a shared intent among those taking part in the conversation. As the world is looking to become more resource-efficient, resilient to shocks, and equal in the opportunities it gives to all, agriculture, digitalization, resource-efficiency (particularly on energy) are key Palestinian connection points that warrant attention. As such, some elements of focus were starting to get clear (these are summarized in the visual below):

  • Net-Zero economy is a future economic option that can break the energy dependency the Israeli occupation has created, while prolonging the lifecycle of relatively expensive resources such as water and energy;
  • Sustainable and resilient agriculture is important to food security, has historical significance to Palestinians, and a major resort to many particularly during crisis;
  • Digital economy is a strategic outlet in face of blockade and isolation, as demonstrated by many successful stories in Gaza, where a Palestinian shift could be boosted in the growing global marketplace;
  • Social enterprises can induce a new, market-based approach to development efforts, creating a more sustainable business model where development capacity is less reliant on donor aid.

Way Forward

While some form of narrative around the path of change is starting to emerge, it is important to ensure that this notion is strongly endorsed by the stakeholder studio members. As such, and building on the momentum and eager participation of stakeholders, an advisory group was established to systemize the engagement with stakeholders. In the next month, the Deep Demo team will be working closely with the advisory group to sensitize the narrative and agree on the elements of focus, making a more complete picture for engagement spaces in the field of an inclusive, resilient economy. This will also entail narrowing down the work from the abstract narrative to more concrete interventions we can test and iterate to help catalyse others to work in the near future.



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