On Patience, Perseverance, the Present Moment (& the Internet) in Gaza, Palestine.

Anam Raheem has spent the past 5 years in Gaza, Palestine, working at a local startup accelerator and a coding academy Gaza Sky Geeks which is changing lives of one of the most vulnerable communities in the world. Anam told us about her experiences in Gaza, the daily lives of its residents and how Internet access is providing them with an opportunity to connect and participate beyond the confinement. We also talked about the role of dreaming and imagination for people in Gaza in their particular circumstances, the need for healing on an individual and community level, and the ongoing need for international support and solidarity.

Hi Anam! Where are you from and what’s your relationship to Palestine? 

My parents are immigrants from Pakistan, so that makes me a first-generation American. In terms of my relationship to Palestine, I’d say it’s probably multi-faceted – I grew up in a very diverse Muslim community here in New Jersey, and I gained some consciousness about the Palestinian cause through that community, through prayer for the people who are oppressed and prayer for when things escalate. That would be at the forefront of our minds. And even within my home it’s just part of our culture to talk about and know about Palestine – so I always was aware that Palestine and its geopolitical issues do exist, and that there’s a “right” and a “wrong” dynamic that’s happening here. That’s one level, and one of my entry points to Palestine.

Another point is through studying Arabic – I loved learning languages growing up, I studied French and Spanish, and I was interested in language academically. Because of my background, I learned Arabic to read the Qur’an and when I went to university I studied in an Arabic program – and I absolutely loved it! I actually dropped a medicine track to study linguistics, and that brought me to study abroad in Jordan. At the time I went , which was before the Arab Spring, I could do things like taking a bus to Syria which is unimaginable right now. 

Living in Jordan, geographically, socially and politically I got very close to understanding the Palestinian cause and understanding more about the realities of the situation. That was my first time in 2010 going to Palestine just to visit. I saw parts of Israel and Palestine – such a stark contrast of realities. Fast forward a little bit and then I started working in economic development in non-profits focused on the Middle East. That took me back and forth to the region, and eventually I got a job at Gaza Sky Geeks, which is a tech hub in Gaza City. I moved to Palestine full time in 2017. I had a little bit of an idea of what I was getting into, I thought this would be a year or two, and just something to try out – but it really quickly turned into 5 years. Now I’m on the other side of this experience – back in the States as of two months ago. 

Tell us more about Gaza Sky Geeks, your workplace in Gaza. 

Gaza Sky Geeks is a program of Mercy Corps – an international humanitarian aid organization headquartered in the States. Mercy Corps have programs all around the world, they work in fragile economies, providing disaster assistance and economic development. Gaza Sky Geeks is something that Mercy Corps founded in Palestine, originally with Google.org. It’s an organization that seeks to use the Internet as a means to support Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank to earn incomes through tech. We provide physical spaces for people to convene, co-working spaces, we run coding bootcamps and a startup accelerator, programs to help people get into online freelancing. All of that is going towards Palestinians, allowing them to earn incomes and to participate in the global economy. GSG started in 2011, and I joined as a volunteer first in 2016 and moved there in 2017. 

How did your regular week in Gaza looked like? 

On the weekends, I would be in the West Bank. Every week I’d drive to Gaza, I’d have my own car, drive through checkpoints and go through Israel to arrive at the Israeli-Gaza border crossing, and that’s as far as I can drive. I leave my car in that parking lot for a week and then I have to do the rest of the crossing, which takes about an hour. The first step is the Israeli part of the crossing, where you show your permits and your paperwork, doing your bag scan, and then you have to cross into Gaza by going through a kilometer long tunnel that is caged and meanders through a no-man’s land, which separates Israel from Gaza. Then you have a few more checkpoints – Palestinian Authority Checkpoint, the border between Hamas and Israel – you register with them, and then you find a taxi or driver and you do the Hamas checkpoint. This takes about an hour, and door to door from Ramallah to my office in Gaza City takes 4 hours. The actual distance is actually only about 40 km. You drive through Gaza City, there’s crazy traffic – you see buildings that are destroyed from previous wars, streets are so crowded. The office is a bustling, modern, hip, co-working space with graffiti on the walls and young people chatting and coding, it’s very vibrant. It’s such a juxtaposition but at the same time it also matches the hustle and bustle of the streets. 

My job specifically was running the coding program – constantly bringing in mentors for that program, escorting in international mentors who were in Gaza for first time, making sure their schedule is met, tons of meetings, receiving a lot of visitors e.g. diplomats and other organizations that are interested in learning about our work. I was also spending a lot of time talking to tech companies around the world, pitching the case to hire our graduates as junior engineers, walking through the mechanics of what it means to hire someone in Palestine and how GSG could help with that. All in all, there was no such thing as a typical week – I’d stay in Gaza for 5 days and then cross out, go back to Ramallah, spend the weekend in the West Bank and do it all over again the next week. 

What was your first impression upon entering Gaza? 

Crossing into Gaza is an electrifying experience. First driving through Israel, a fully developed country, paved roads, skyscrapers – everything is as you imagine in a Western country, and then all of the sudden the road ends and you’re at a giant structure that looks like an airport. You see huge concrete walls, a barbed wire, there’s a security balloon hovering above with surveillance cameras on it, there’s a tank in a parking lot – it’s all very surreal. When you’re actually crossing into Gaza – it feels like a maximum security prison. In terms of the vibe of it, but also the mechanism. There’s a lot of fully armed guards, it’s just a very secured location. Walking through that cage into Gaza it really makes me think: what does it say about the people who erect these kind of structures, what does it say about the 2 million people who are behind it? I did that every week for several years and it became very routine for me. It can be chaotic, the rules are always changing, but something I promised myself when I first crossed in – this will become routine, but it should never feel normal that something like this exists in the world, and that we’re letting this happen. It should never feel normal that 2 million people are being left behind these walls, and left behind this mechanism that keeps them trapped in there. Even until the last day, every time I walked through that cage, I thought to myself – “this isn’t normal, this isn’t normal”. I’m a regular here, and I was very comfortable doing this crossing but I really worked hard for this to never become something I was asleep during. I was always thinking – this is wrong. 

How did it feel to meet the community there for the first time? 

I started as a volunteer remotely, helping them with fundraising. I was with GSG from the early stages in this remote volunteer capacity. So I wasn’t starting from complete scratch when I moved there. At that point of my life I wanted to leave the States and gain some work experience abroad, and I was very clear that if I move away to work, it has to be for something that has a real impact on real people’s lives. I don’t respond well to  bureaucracy, and the people working at GSG are trying to build something for other people, and are awesome. I knew it was a right decision, it was so exciting, and everything I wanted. 

Meeting the community there was so nice, they are so welcoming. They don’t have a lot of exposure to people outside of Gaza, so they do take a lot of interest in you and want to learn what brought you here etc. I remember being taken into a theatre where an art performance was live-streamed between London and Gaza, it blew my mind. There’s so many underground events happening, there’s a lot of life and art and innovation happening in Gaza and I was excited to discover it all. 

That’s really fascinating – we’d love to learn more the culture in Gaza. But perhaps let’s dive in first into Gaza Sky Geeks. What are some of the projects that this organization is working on? 

There is a coding bootcamp, taking people from zero skills in engineering to graduating them into junior developer so they can get their first jobs in tech. There’s a freelancing program – taking people who have some kind of skill, engineering, design or anything you can monetize on the Internet, and become competitive on platforms like Upwork. The third one is a startup accelerator, teaching them how to get their first users and talk to their first investors. Alongside we have mentor programs, bringing mentors with expertise interested in mentoring. We applied for permits for those mentors coming to Gaza and we’d facilitate their workshops, and 1-1 mentoring sessions. The goal was to increase people’s awareness and exposure to the tech scene in Gaza, and those people became our biggest champions and supporters all around the world, spreading the word. 

Another area is community building – how do we get people to support each other, how to facilitate the internal give and take in the community. We also focused on inclusivity. Because we were building this tech community from scratch, we could learn from the shortcomings and mistakes of other tech communities outside of Palestine, realizing that this is our chance to get women’s inclusivity at the forefront. We built in mechanisms, invested money, hired a dedicated team member who is just focused on conducting outreach and activities for women.

What are some examples of startups and applications being built? 

The target audience is Gaza itself – solving problems in Gaza, for example things like ridesharing. But also targeting the Arabic speaking world. There was a really successful startup focused on Arabic tourism in Turkey. People are solving local problems but also thinking more broadly about the Arab-speaking world. 

Are coders in Gaza able to secure a livable wage? 

Yes they are! We set up a mechanism to link people to jobs. I led a talent matching team for the last 2 years. We built a network of hiring partners in Palestine and all around the world – tech companies who have the willingness and capacity to hire junior developers from Palestine remotely, all around the world. It was successful – it took time, we really had to figure out the marketing, value proposition and the legal structure – since we’re the gateway for the company to send salaries into Gaza, because it’s very difficult to get money into Gaza otherwise. We had companies from everywhere, all the way from Singapore, Canada, etc. This is the one of the most exciting areas GSG is breaking ground in – creating access to the global job market, earning revenue, putting Palestine on the map as a destination for great engineers – and I can’t wait to see how the team grows it. 

Coming back to the context in Gaza – it seems like it’s a really special opportunity to be able to learn to code, work at a startup or even work abroad, given the local circumstances that people are in. Could you tell us more about those circumstances for any regular person in Gaza? 

The context is super important! Gaza is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. There’s 2 million people in a 365 sq km piece of land. It’s a very young population, 70% of people are under the age of 35. The population is very well educated, there’s 5 universities just in Gaza City alone. The literacy rate in Palestine is somewhere near 96%. The quality of education is a different story, people have access to education and study things like computer science but it’s a very outdated curriculum, it’s focused on theory, and not enough experiential elements that promotes things like team work, problem solving, or critical thinking. There’s a very well educated young population but very little job opportunities, because Gaza has been under a blockade for over a decade now, an economic blockade, physical blockade – there are physical walls around Gaza, and it has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, around 65%. So there’s all these educated, hungry and ambitious young people but literally nowhere to go and no jobs for them to access. So this is what makes GSG pretty relevant and urgent – we’re trying to solve that problem not just in the long term but in the short term. We’re putting up this promise – if you do this bootcamp and training it increases your chances of getting a job. The demand for these programs became super high. We started off in a windowless apartment, then moved to a 500 square meter co-working space, opened a second space in the south of Gaza, and we’re moving into an even bigger one in a mall. 

What is the difference in terms of building technology for Palestinian audience? 

The coding bootcamp is very experiential and all about self-learning, working in teams, and learning how to solve problems through tech. We focus on building in empathy that’s needed to solve these problems – not just for the engineers, but the clients as well.  For example, there’s no airport in Gaza and most people in Gaza have never been on a plane and don’t know what it means to go through an airport. We had this client from Kenya who wanted to build an app focused on airport communications. We had to take time to let developers understand what it even means to go through an airport, what is the flow. There’s a level of pretty profound empathy that goes into that. I don’t have any technology background but that’s something I always think about – a lot of clients don’t realize that they need to have empathy for developers, and explain the requirements from the point of view of what they have access to, what is the reality in which they operate in.

Do you encounter any issues with teaching and implementing the solutions from the Western startup culture in the context of Gaza?

There’s some mentors who’d come in and perhaps some of the startups they work at wouldn’t be relevant given the local context. For example, an alcohol delivery app or even a dating app – those things are just not relevant in Gaza. But even from those examples there’s still lessons learned that you can apply. There’s definitely a context and even things like setting up a payment gateway are a big challenge. There’s no PayPal in Gaza. There’s a lot of barriers – and as much as we can learn from the “outside” world, there’s also a lot of innovation within Gaza, and the world can learn from them.

We ran a hackathon once that was all about offline solutions, because the electricity situation in Gaza is so bad, there’s not always electricity to access the Internet, so people are exploring  offline apps. So it goes both ways. I’ve been listening to the podcast called “Tech Won’t Save Us” and really it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that while GSG and harnessing technology is a great solution for some problems in Gaza, there’s a much bigger issue going on – a military occupation, and there’s some apps that will make life a little bit easier within that but that’s not going to liberate Gaza. We’re solving very specific problems and helping people to breathe a little bit easier, but the prison walls are not going to come down because of some app. People come with the best intentions and that’s awesome but we’re solving problems of a different nature and on a different scale with tech. 

What is the role of the Internet and social media in Gaza? 

Internet access is a lifeline in Gaza. Thinking about Kashmir, a place that’s also under occupation but doesn’t have Internet access – it’s striking what a difference it makes. The Internet is a key piece of infrastructure to create economic opportunities but also just to stay connected to the world. Gazans are so isolated, most of them have never been more than 15 kilometers from their home, their whole life. But they are so savvy on social media, Instagram etc. Even beyond globalization, culture, accessing information and Netflix – during the last war in May 2021 social media was huge, it had a huge impact on raising awareness and harnessing international solidarity in a way that I have never ever seen before for Palestine. More people were talking about it and speaking up about it, and sharing information about it. That was because of social media and started from people who were on the ground in Gaza, filming while being bombed, young people were speaking in English on Instagram Live – “look, this is what it’s like to live under war, this is why we need awareness”. Social media has allowed us to  break down the Palestinian struggle in a way that never happened before  – it used to be just CNN and other major news outlets or academia talking about it, now it’s people speaking for themselves. So the Internet is a lifeline, it will have big part in moving the needle in terms of lifting this occupation and shifting what the world puts up with – the more people know, the more people become outraged, the more they realize what’s true versus what’s a lie – I think social media will play a big role in that. 

Yes. We noticed that as well. Another thing is whether this will have a tangible impact on the situation? 

I don’t think it will happen overnight – but spreading the word and awareness are definitely important things to start with. 

What are the things that you think Western audience should know about the situation in Gaza but they’re not hearing on the news? 

It’s very easy for us to say that Palestinians are so resilient, or that war torn countries in general are so resilient – but I really don’t like that. I don’t like that word, resilience – because it makes it seem that people who are in these oppressive environments are born with a gene that allows  them to put up with oppression. I hope that people learn that Palestinians in Gaza are suffering, there’s a monumental health crisis in Gaza, there’s huge spike in suicide after this war. People in Gaza are suffering, people in Gaza are human and no one should have to put up with what they are putting up with. That all being said I will say that people in Gaza are still staying strong, they push through and they persevere. Thinking about our team at GSG – they also needed time to recover from this war, but they are now back and they’re thinking: “how can we open our doors so we can help our people get back on their feet too”. And that’s a level of strength and perseverance that I think is absolutely mindblowing.

So there’s resilience but I don’t like to make it seem like Gazans can just handle it – they are pushing through because that’s what humans do when they are put into a pressure cooker. And so I think that the Western audience should know that while people are back at it – they are struggling still. The solidarity needs to continue. It’s one thing about having a social media frenzy – but what happens after that? How do you have conversations with your community about it? How do you organize around it? How do you support organizers that are trying to raise awareness even beyond the wars? So I think their humanity shouldn’t just come into play when a bomb is falling on their head. The world has gone away now and Gaza is still in ruins, and people lost homes and businesses and family. They keep going because that’s what humans do  – they don’t give up. But dispelling the notion of resilience – they need support and solidarity. 

What kind of psychological help do people receive? 

By and large there’s no big culture of mental health. It’s very stigmatized, it’s very taboo to talk about mental health issues. But in moments of extreme danger like that war for example, there’s something that shifted when people in Gaza knew they needed this. I put out a call on Instagram for an Arabic speaking trauma informed therapist – that’s the only responsible thing to be doing right now, to be helping people heal as much as possible. The demand was huge. Men and women, people saying that they are still in shock, they can’t sleep at night and wondering how to get their lives back on track after this. So there was a huge demand for it, and very fortunately a supply of great therapists that reached out wanting to offer pro bono support – so we were able to set up all these sessions and engage them. So while there wasn’t a culture of mental health, this war shifted something. It was just that bad that people realized they need any help they can get. 

Even having a community space like GSG provides can be a space for healing and support, right? 

I went to Gaza after the war and in the GSG office people would be hanging out, playing video games and charades and just talking, sitting in the chairs in a circle, oscillating between tears and laughter. Togetherness is part of the healing. It’s both beautiful and devastating to see. Seeing the desire to heal and support others in healing – that’s another thing I want to be part of, and I want the world to be part of that. 

What were some of your most memorable moments in Gaza? 

Every graduation of the coding academy made me so happy, and seeing where some of these students have ended up. Just seeing that transformation of when they come in, interviewing for a spot and pushing themselves and experiencing something they couldn’t access anywhere else in Gaza, and seeing them starting businesses. For example 2 developers in Gaza paired with developers in London and started a cooperative agency called Yalla. Seeing where they have started and where they are now – that’s a very memorable experience.

Beyond work it’s just about finding those little community spaces – for example, I was part of this small women’s yoga group, we would just meet in the basement of their home, she turned it into a yoga studio and it was such a beautiful place for women to just stretch and laugh together. So for me it was all about finding those spaces that we take for granted in the West, and are so rare in Gaza, and how much release one experiences  when you find those spaces – whether it’s an art space or a yoga spot or a co-working space. 

Other memorable things are just joyriding around with the team and going on little adventures. Every sunset in Gaza was very memorable!

You’ve mentioned that Gaza has a thriving art scene, can you tell us more about it?
I’ve been to a fine art gallery in Gaza, but what always struck me was street art in Gaza, there’s a big culture of street art and especially in the wake of the war – it’s about how do we reclaim the space that’s been destroyed. The port of Gaza is packed with rubble from the wars and it’s all painted in different colours and it’s turned into an art installation. Even in this past war they held a concert on the top of rubble. Everywhere you go in Gaza there’s murals everywhere, some of them show the suffering in Gaza, some are just beautiful Arabic calligraphy. There’s a huge art culture in Gaza, and so many mediums. There is a huge literature movement and so much art in general. People in cafes are singing together, pretty much everywhere you go – there’s art. 

How’s the daily life in Gaza, do things “go back to normal” after the conflict? 

There’s definitely suffering, even underneath the impression that people just go with the flow. There’s this Palestinian saying: we teach life. I have been through escalations when the bombs were falling, no one could leave their home, it was very intense, and the next day the markets were busy and bustling again. So they teach life – it’s beyond fucked up what’s happening, but they also have their joy to attend to. I remember the UN came up with a report saying that by 2020 Gaza would be uninhabitable, and it’s like.. I don’t know what that means? Apparently this is a dead place but all I see is life here, bustling life. There is joy but it coexists with all the suffering and devastation as well. 

We’ve seen works of sustainable architecture students in Gaza, envisioning the future city of Gaza…

Gaza is getting smashed every couple of years, but then it comes back. And then it gets smashed again but then it comes back. One of my closest friends in Gaza is an architect, who joined Gaza Sky Geeks and now runs the coding bootcamp. I’ve seen some of the buildings that she designed there – just because it is so fragile, there’s still care to make things beautiful. There’s this present moment and we should make it as beautiful as we can. 

I’ve been thinking about the role of imagining, about how your thoughts and feelings can create your reality – I think there’s a lot of application of that in the social justice movement. Imagine the future in which a group of people are free, are liberated. In order for this to actually happen, you need to first envision it. And that exists in Gaza, people are future-focused. The people who are there are holding on, imagining a future that’s better than this occupation. There’s this book called Palestine +100, where 12 writers from Palestine were asked to imagine the world in 2048, a hundred years after the tragedy of Nakba. So it’s like a sci-effort that embraces the culture of imagining, and holding on and being part of building that future Palestine. No matter if it’s an architect designing a new space, or a girl learning to code, or a TikTok artist doing makeup tutorials – there’s hope for the future. It gets tested a lot but it’s there. 

Can you talk about some lessons learned personally and professionally from your 5 years stay in Gaza? 

I learned so much! I think I learned a lot about patience. I have the word “patience” in Arabic tattooed on my back. We have the same word in Urdu and it gets invoked a lot in times of hardship. I learned about patience on so many levels. Because of my Muslim-Pakistani origins, I got treated differently than my white colleagues. Anytime I went in and out of Gaza I had to sit and be “detained” for hours at a time, because they had to run my name across a terrorist database, and give me a harder time. So all my colleagues could get their passport and just leave and I would have my passport taken away and had to wait. I remember sitting then and thinking, this is a very, very, very tiny fraction of what Palestinians endure, if they’re even lucky enough to go to the checkpoint and get a chance to travel. It made me think of the profound levels of patience Palestinians embody to not constantly lose their mind in this oppressive system. Even the patience we’re talking about – the imagining and waiting for a better future – this is what you have to do to not give up, to not throw in the towel. 

Another thing I learned is resourcefulness, operating in Gaza we needed a plan A,B, C and D and I think being creative about finding solutions to things, even organizing batteries to power our internet routers at home, it required resourcefulness. We applied that in our work in so many ways, even when all our hands were tied behind our backs. 

We were telling people that they can get any job they want in tech, people who didn’t have college education would be able to get jobs at London-based startups. I think this helped to shift my mind around career narratives and the corporate career ladder – to not feel stuck in an artificial path motivated by title. I’ve realized I’m much more motivated by experience and joy. 

What are the ways in which we can support Gazans at the moment? 

There’s so many ways. In terms of Gaza Sky Geeks, you can apply to be a mentor (remote for now but it will be possible to visit Gaza again), you can donate to keep us going, you can hire a developer from Gaza, you can advocate for the company your work at to create internship opportunities for GSG graduates – not just out of charity, but there’s so much innovation that Gazans can give to the world. They are creating solutions to problems that we don’t even think about and the business case for hiring diversely is already proven.

On the advocacy front – if you don’t know about what’s going on in Palestine, educate yourself. It’s not acceptable anymore to sit on the sidelines and let this thing be “too complicated” for you to have a perspective on it. Especially if you’re in the Western world, your tax money is paying for this oppression. Educate yourself, ask questions, be willing to have your mind changed, learn and understand how we are complicit in this. If anyone has the means to visit – then go there. I think it’s important for people to see it and bear witness. This is the best way to learn. 

There’s also tons of organisations doing amazing work – Al-Haq is an amazing human rights organization led by Palestinian lawyers. They’re documenting legal violations and doing all they can to hold the violators accountable. Another organisation worth supporting is 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights organization. 

There’s also a need for humanitarian aid to help Gaza rebuild, medical aid, hospitals here are also dealing with covid with very limited resources. There’s no shortage of ways to get involved but in the very least – find a solidarity group and start getting involved, go to events and protests and listen to what people are saying. Start to build consciousness around Palestine beyond what’s in the headlines and mainstream media.

How do you feel now about Gaza and its future? 

I’m an optimist by nature and I’m hopeful. I believe that what’s happening to Palestine is evil, and I believe that evil is unsustainable. We’ve seen very evil eras happen in the past and those things collapse over time. I think the truth will be revealed, and the truth is on the side of Palestinians. And you see it in lots of magical ways. Even just recently 6 Palestinian political prisoners dug their way out of a high security Israeli prison and that too me really encompasses the spirit of Palestinian perserverance and patience. Israel has billions of dollars in military funding and the most advanced army in the world – and these guys dug a tunnel with spoons. This is how house of cards will fall – I’m not sure if this will happen in our lifetime, but I’m sure Palestine will be liberated from this. The role of imagination for me is powerful and it keeps me going, especially when things get so bad like during that war in May. It’s also human nature to believe that so many oppressive mind boggling structures will eventually fall, perhaps not completely but we can rid ourselves of pure evil and reckon with its remnants. 

Systems of oppression are being uncovered everywhere now, and people are becoming more conscious and aware...

Sure, there’s a connection between a police officer’s knee on the neck of a Black man in the US is directly related to an Israeli soldier pointing a gun at a young Palestinian holding a rock. These situations are not happening in a vacuum, the forces of evil are definitely in cahoots – but that means that the forces of solidarity and progressivism should also be in cahoots. If you’re marching for Black Lives Matter, you should know that it’s intrinsically related to Free Palestine movements. After the most recent war, I’ve seen unprecedented levels of solidarity, and this gives me hope. 

What’s next for you?
I don’t have a plan, I’m resting and trying to unlearn tying productivity to my self-worth. I’m trying to practice calming the reflex in my mind that when I’m not working, I’m wasting time. I recently decided in my heart that I’m going to write something – a novel or collection of short stories – that honours my experience in Palestine. I was actually recently shortlisted for the Wasifiri New Writer’s Prize and my short story that takes place in Gaza will be published soon! I spend my days dreaming and writing ideas and being hopeful that this will become a project that I can share with others. I have so many memories and so many feelings and also overwhelming sadness, but Gaza is both a devastating and loving and hilarious place at the same time. I want to be able to capture the spirit of it – a place where I laughed harder than I ever laughed in my life, but also want people to know that it’s a terribly wrong situation and there’s an urgency to it that we need to empathize with, immediately. 

Thank you Anam!

This interview was carried out by koholaa and saraswathi. Support Nebula magazine on Gitcoin!

Universal Basic Income and How To Make it Happen (in Germany)

Spurred by the coronavirus crisis and the resulting prospects of an intense economic fallout, the case for Universal Basic Income is back on the agenda of activists and researchers around the world. In Germany, a state-wide UBI pilot plan is coming close to reality thanks to the work of Joy Ponader and their team. Johannes “Joy” Ponader has been working on Universal Basic Income initiatives for more than 10 years. In 2019 they co-founded Expedition Grundeinkommen, a project which aims to introduce a comprehensive, scientifically evaluated, long-term basic income pilot in Germany. In this interview, we discussed both theoretical and practical aspects of UBI, as well as the plans for its roll out.

Hi Joy! Tell us about the purpose and origins of Expedition Grundeinkommen?

The purpose of our organisation is to advance Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Germany. We’re focused on promoting the idea and, more specifically, bringing it to the political space. Over the past 10 years we’ve hosted a lot of events in Germany creating an environment for discussions and debates on this issue. Our mission is to make UBI graspable and decision-ready as a political topic.

How did you get involved in Universal Basic Income?

The topic of basic income has been an ongoing thread in my professional life, I’ve been engaged with it for the past 14 years. In 2004, I co-founded Netzwerk Grundeinkommen, an association of people and organizations that advocate for basic income with its four precisely defined criteria. I also organized several conferences focused on UBI. I was part of the Occupy Berlin movement and part of the Pirate Party in Berlin. All these experiences led me to finally co-founding of Expedition Grundeinkommen and Sanktionsfrei, an initiative trying to reform the current German unemployment system (“Hartz IV”).

Who is involved in Expedition Grundeinkommen, and where are you at with this project?

We have 10 people in the core team working on the project. We also have roughly 30,000 volunteers all over Germany. The project started in May 2019. We are combining the topics of UBI and direct democracy, building a platform where people can sign up to participate in Expedition Grundeinkommen. Depending on where in Germany you’re residing, there are different ways to contribute and get involved. Since we started we’ve been active in four regions — Berlin, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Bremen. If you live there, you can sign the Volksinitiative (popular initiative), which we are in the process of collecting signatures for. We need roughly 80,000 signatures for all the 5 Bundeslaender (federal states). You can also collect signatures!

If you are outside of these 5 federal states, you can still ask people who reside there to sign it. We are planning to expand nationally in the early autumn this year.

How will universal basic income in Germany work in practice?

You can just imagine it as everyone receiving a basic salary — about a 1000 or 1200 EUR per month. Then you would have to pay taxes for the first Euro that you’re earning on top of your UBI, regular taxes on every transaction (be it income tax or VAT). UBI can be compared to a tax-free allowance, a basic amount that everyone gets. For people who don’t have any income, UBI works as a basic subsidy, to replace Harz IV and other types of income support help available in Germany today. I’m a strong advocate for having every person who is living in Germany to be eligible for UBI. In our pilot we have decided to have every person living in a certain location to be eligible for it, regardless of citizenship.

What needs to happen for Expedition Grundeinkommen to be successful? What’s your timeline?

The initiative needs to pass through the Volksgesetzgebung (citizen lawmaking) process which is a 3 step process. The final step is the referendum, in which all the citizens of the 5 federal states currently participating in the program will have to decide whether they want to be part of the UBI pilot project. When we go nation-wide, every city and every municipality where our activity is taking place will invite citizens to decide whether they want to be a part of the pilot program. Ideally, this should take place on the day of the federal elections in September 2021.

Because we don’t have direct democracy on the state level, we’re using a sort of a political hack — we are advocating for the introduction of the pilot project and not the UBI itself, and this decision can be taken on the federal level and a city level.

The concept of UBI has been gaining momentum in the recent years but the idea is not new. What are its philosophical and academic underpinnings?

There are a lot of predecessors to the currently proposed concepts of UBI, especially since the mid-18th century Enlightenment and since the evolution of liberal ideas of giving power to the people.

In the 1960s several philosophers and economists spoke in favour of the idea from very different angles. One one hand we have an economic liberal approach with advocates such as Milton Friedman, who argued for a ‘slim state’, wanted to take the power from the government and improve the market economy. The logic here was that if everybody had a basic salary, then everyone could participate in the market, no one would be excluded.

Another approach to UBI was espoused by Martin Luther King who focused on the power of basic income to overcome poverty and racial divisions, addressing social issues in order to bring social equality and a common base level on which everyone in the society stands together. In the 1960s and 70s in the US, there were very intense discussions regarding the possibility of introducing UBI programs, but after facing a conservative backlash the topic was buried again.

For the past 10 years we’ve seen a renaissance, a second spring for the idea. The topic is becoming more and more prominent again. We see this as a window of opportunity, especially now when with the new wave of automation and AI, we will see many jobs falling away or being completely removed.

In those new circumstances, having a basic salary for everybody, free from discrimination, and without strings attached — without needing to prove that you are actually poor — having this common ground will give people way more power to adapt to this new labour landscape.

On the other hand, we still have a lot to do to push the idea forward, especially in terms of creative and entrepreneurial work.

How is the renewed interest in UBI fuelled by the coronavirus crisis?

The coronavirus crisis is showing something interesting: the economy suffers when everyone consumes only the essentials, fulfilling their basic needs. We are actually experiencing a post-growth economy now. And despite the tragedy cause by that infectious virus, we can see a lot of positive side effects — on the planet, air quality, and so on.

In these times of crisis, we see politicians and state agencies setting up aid programs on a weekly basis, trying to help small companies, self-employed, artists etc. But we’re observing as well how they constantly keep forgetting or excluding particular groups. If only we had basic income in place, everyone would be included from the outset, no one would be left behind. No one would have to lobby for their particular interests alone.

If we are lobbying for universal basic income, we are really lobbying for every single person living in this country.

If we are lobbying for universal basic income, we are really lobbying for every single person living in this country. We are therefore creating a common policy proposal that everyone can gather around and support. And especially in a crisis situation such as we are facing currently, a lot of people realize how much better would they feel with basic income in place, as opposed to now, without adequate support.

Can the state afford it? Is it feasible for the state to keep everyone supported in this way?

Absolutely. It’s very helpful not to imagine UBI simply as having a 1000 EUR on top of one’s regular salary — but as having the money that you already have, unconditionally, no strings attached. Nearly everyone in Germany already receives some sort of income support, be it family income, subsidies, children’s allowances (Kindergeld), pensions etc. If you imagine offering this money unconditionally — it becomes a way of insuring against losing this income — then it becomes way cheaper. We don’t generate more income but ensure that the financial support already collected by the people is guaranteed.

Some serious calculations regarding the cost of the state, they all have a net cost price tag between 0 and 100 billion EUR per year, depending on the source and approach.

Is there any literature or other resources that you recommend for those who want to learn more?

My first recommendation is the book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen by Guy Standing, a standard read on this topic. In terms of German authors, we have Götz Werner’s Einkommen für Alle. There’s also a lot of scientific studies online and several proposals from political parties and highly rated scientific institutes, for example this study from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin).

We are living in a world of socioeconomic disparities and inequality, including gender, race and class inequality. Will UBI be able to address these inequalities and directly impact this situation? Is UBI considered as a tool to address these issues?

There’s different opinions on that. I’m most familiar with the feminist discourse. From an intersectional level you’d rather agree that introducing UBI is a positive development. When you dive deep into each discipline itself, for example into the feminist discourse, you will encounter varied opinions. There’s strong advocates for UBI allowing women to become independent or receive compensation for unpaid carework. On the other hand there’s also criticism of the UBI in the feminist discourse — due to the fear that it will cement the traditional structures and gender roles. We see now in the corona times that a lot of homeschooling work is done by womxn. Some are afraid that if everyone receives UBI, it will be even harder to combine work life and family life. It’d be even harder for women to break out of these traditional structures.

There’s always on one side of the argument stating that bringing this level of equality will create a common starting ground for everyone, while the other side of the argument holds that the money should be used for direct action to address various inequalities.

What are the long term goals and effects of introducing UBI? Is there an overarching vision for UBI-based society?

From the pilot projects introduced all around the world, e.g. in Finland, Kenya or Namibia, as well as the pilot projects in the US in the 60s, we can already see the direct effects on individuals.

Those studies indicated mental, psychological, physical and the general well-being increase of the populations receiving UBI.

There’s no big scale effect on labour provided — there’s some people are investing in better education but in general the amount of labour provided by people stay the same.

On the societal level, the effects are hard to figure out from the small scale pilots. But you can imagine that basic income is like a common level ground from which its easier to leverage and solve other issues. A better common ground for how to deal with automation, a better common ground from how to eradicate inequalities including gender and race inequality, and a better starting point in order to address the climate crisis or solve the rent crisis.

Moreover, with access to UBI, more people would be willing to move to the small villages and build a decentralised life outside of huge metropolia, or even build autonomous structures there because they would no longer be afraid whether they’d find jobs in those places. They can be more risk tolerant, which is good for the community, because risk aversion stifles innovation. UBI can be considered as a form of social innovation in terms of overcoming inequality. At one moment in time we got to the point where women were allowed to vote in the elections, which back then was considred a social innovation. Similarly, with UBI we are stepping into more freedom and equality as a society. Having a common ground granted by UBI is very important before undertaking actions to reinvent the power structures and innovate on a society’s level.

How big is the social and political support for UBI across Germany? Is it politically plausible?

There’s a lot of support, roughly 50% of the German population are in favour of UBI — which is a lot and it increased over the past 10 years. Especially if you ask whether people are in favour of having pilot projects — a lot of them are. Within the political parties, on the left — a lot of people at the bottom of the party are in favour of UBI and there’s vivid discussion around the issue but there’s no decision on the party level yet to have it as a policy proposal. We will see whether basis votum (plebiscite within a party) will be established.

Among the left, all of the parties do have leaders who are in favour of basic income, with Saskia Esken (SPD), Katja Kipping (Die Linke) and Robert Habeck (Grüne). Among the conservatives there’s no prominent leaders at the moment who are in favour. The social democrats are struggling because their core narrative is to be a party for the workforce, so they are a bit afraid that their base narrative requires basic income.

How is UBI different from existing safety programs?

It’s universal and there is no strings attached. It is important to note as well that UBI is only a replacement for basic safety programs, it’s not a replacement for support for people with special needs or physical disabilities.

We can place it in the same category as many other initiatives in social and economic development. For example, a recent innovation in human service program regarding the treatment of homeless people – the Housing First discussion — happens in parallel to the UBI discussion. The standard approach towards helping a homeless person, who is also drug addict, used to be trying to get rid of the drug addiction first and placing them in a homeless shelter. The Housing First approach moves the homeless individual or household immediately from the streets or homeless shelters into their own accommodation.

There’s also a “Give Directly” movement in international development work in the countries of the Global South. It proclaims that instead of investing in classic programs, be it education or infrastructure — it’s better to give cash directly to people in need, which has proven more effective.

These are both parallel conclusions to the basic income scenario. It’s about getting rid of the unnecessary middlemen and excessive bureaucracy.

What are some of the criticisms of UBI, and how would you address them?

The first argument is that UBI is too expensive and it’s a misconception. If you realize that UBI means that everyone is having financial support they had already been eligible for, guaranteed, you’ll see that it’s actually affordable for the state.

Another argument against UBI is that it’s ineffective. “Why should the rich people get UBI? Shouldn’t we identify the people who are really in need?” The problem here is that you never can identify who really needs the money and who doesn’t. We’d need to uphold the governmental agencies who screen people and take those decisions, which generates a lot of bureaucratic overhead while often decisions are incorrect and end up in various battles in courts. We also face a lot of fraud in the social security system. It’s more efficient to give the money to everybody and then take it back via taxation.

How can UBI supporters get involved and help the initiative?

They can go to the Expedition Grundeinkommen’s website and check out all the information provided. If you are living in one of the Bundesländer where we are already active, you can sign the bill that we are proposing. You can also get involved in collecting signatures.

If you are not in the active region yet, sign up and leave your zip code — we’ll notify you when we launch our campaigns in those regions.

You also always give us donations to support our team who is carrying out this work.

Thank you!