Taking the Liberty – Arda Mardirossian Shamshoum

Taking the Liberty

By Arda Mardirossian Shamshoum
Published in January edition of This Week in Palestine

Fifteen years ago, I happened to cross paths with my present employer in the field of development who is also the founder and director of the company. My employment with the company allowed me to be part of an enlightening professional  and personal growth experience through my involvement in the InTajuna Project for promoting the purchase of Palestinian-made products. At about the same time, I wrote my last article, “Why the Shampoo Didn’t Make It to My Hair,” also in This Week in Palestine. Now I have the honour again to reflect upon investing in Palestinian- made products for this issue of TWIP – in my capacity as a proud, concerned, yet hopeful Palestinian citizen; especially after the recent status upgrade of our beloved Palestine.

I must admit I had a tough time expressing my thoughts coherently in the beginning – my thoughts are usually known to be chaotic anyway. So I began by reflecting on the act of buying and the act of investing. Essentially, anyone who buys a piece of candy or a piece of land, even someone who buys into an idea or a cause, expects a return, a result or a sense of satisfaction, such as pleasure or financial, psychological, moral, or political gain. Buying and investing appear the same as far as the motivation, the return. The decision to buy/invest  rests on one absolute factor: the degree of confidence the buyer/investor has in realising the return/satisfaction. This confidence is conditional upon paying a price to the party responsible for delivering its end of the bargain. As such, from this point onward I will be using the words buyer and investor interchangeably – as both are driven by the same motive for a return/satisfaction, with the decision-making factor being the level of confidence in the party responsible for delivery of the return.

Buying Palestinian or investing in Palestine boils down to two areas that require intervention: confidence and responsibility.

Confidence-building is a cumulative, interactive, evolutionary growth process founded on trust and directed by responsible leaders. Trust transforms into a sense of safety and stability, both necessary milestones for individual productivity within the larger social unit. Productivity is essential to a true sense of achievement and self-worth. Realising self-worth is indispensable in nurturing the courage to venture out of the comfort zone and risk failure. Experiencing and accepting failure is the final stage of the process that culminates in confidence.

Looking back at my experience at InTajuna, I recognise that a sense of responsibility is essentially anchored in the word itself – explicitly and morally. In Arabic, InTajuna (which means “our production”) puts the emphasis on OUR. Underlining our responsibility, literally and figuratively, is key to triggering the confidence-building process in Palestinian-made products and in what we produce as parents, professionals, policy makers, educators, and ultimately as a society. InTajuna has organically evolved from an idea to a principle, and even a philosophy, adopted by many beyond those involved directly in the project.

For years, the rhetoric and action of Palestinian political, social, and economic leaders, and even individuals, have been caught in a demoralising, self-doubting, and isolating positive-feedback cycle. Innumerable fingers have been pointed in every possible direction other than at ourselves, starting with the Israeli occupation, the international community, the corruption, the incompetence, etc. Rarely has there been any genuine, courageous admission that we are individually and collectively responsible for what we produce and consume.

So six years ago, we invested in the idea of the InTajuna project. Initially we anticipated a moral return from the cause rather than a financial one. Our team worked passionately to achieve InTajuna’s intended result: to raise Palestinian consumer awareness about their own interest by empowering Palestinians to make a preferential choice by investing their valued disposable income in Palestinian-made products. We recognised the effectiveness of organised consumer power in affecting companies, upgrading products, influencing policy makers, and ultimately redirecting resources toward collective economic and social benefit. InTajuna empowered, gave confidence, and organised individual Palestinian citizens and institutions to make small positive changes from within to our difficult situation, at a time when Palestinians were experiencing increasing political and economic hardship.

We did not call to boycott or eliminate foreign alternatives or unreasonably demand that consumers buy Palestinian-made goods at all costs. In this respect, it is important to make the distinction between buying local and using boycott strategies since our policy makers and politicians tend to mix the two. Buying local is a form of proactive support to productive Palestinian capacity to grow stronger in the face of occupation. Buying local also creates a demand for existing offers and opens investment opportunities in new local products and services. Boycott, on the other hand, is a reactive approach to rebuke non-Palestinian enterprises in the hopes that they will effect a change in the Israeli government’s occupation policies.

While there is nothing new in supporting the concept of buying local, it is a very potent strategy in some of the most industrialised countries to advance national economic goals. In Palestine, this reasoning seems like rocket science given the constant need to clarify, justify, advocate, and convince relevant government bodies, development aid agencies, investors, purchasing managers, and consumers to invest in buying Palestinian goods and services.

Palestine is in dire need of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, especially after more than 60 years of control and forced unhealthy dependence on Israeli suppliers. This dependence and control ranges from the raw milk supply to the electromagnetic spectrum. In this context, the relevance of confidence-building to invest in Palestinian products becomes even more pronounced as a means of minimising dependence. The correlation between buying local and the positive socioeconomic impact of strengthening our collective position against the Israeli occupation is unquestionable. This strategy possesses the necessary elements to infuse an internal sense of liberty in the Palestinian collective psyche as a powerful force against volatility due to external variables.

I acknowledge that realisation of full confidence and responsibility toward internal liberty on the level of critical mass may be too ambitious and time-consuming. Yet not too long ago, Palestinian producers opted to keep the origin of their products anonymous. Recently, however, more and more have demonstrated confidence and a true sense of pride in Palestinian-made products. Palestinian consumers used to seek foreign goods and services. Now more and more consumers are seeking Palestinian-made products. Not too long ago, Palestinian policy makers opted to promote exports. Now more and more are promoting the local market. Finally, not too long ago, leaders blamed the occupation. Now more and more leaders are taking matters into their own hands, unafraid to be held responsible and accountable for the well-being of the Palestinian nation.

The ground is ripe for the Palestinian pursuit of self-sufficiency. A possible economic strategy is to focus resources, legislation, policies, and development initiatives on confidence-building as the single-most vital measure to trigger a positive chain of interactions. Naturally the government should be held responsible for initiating this process of confidence-building. But the responsibility does not stop there as each member of society should also consciously assume responsibility to nurture confidence within his or her various personal and professional capacities and circle of relations. If those in responsible positions fail, with time people will place their confidence elsewhere in the form of money (spending), votes, places of employment, and even emigration. I call upon Palestinian government institutions, genuine development aid agencies, and qualified civil society organisations to capture this positive momentum and redirect political rhetoric, efforts, resources, policies, and programmes to help the Palestinian people build confidence. And I call on employees, consumers, and enterprises to invest in Palestinian-made goods and in Palestine.

Arda Mardirossian Shamshoum is a Palestinian Armenian development professional with more than 15 years of experience specialising in the Palestinian private sector. She is enjoying the responsibility of parenting two most wonderful children, Marcel and Maiia, with her mate Rami Shamshoum.

Article photos courtesy of Solutions for Development Consulting Company.