Is aid good for Yemen?
Ten million Yemenis, about 45% of the population, are going hungry in the Arab world's poorest state. Unemployment is at a disastrous 70% and, according to the IMF, in 2011 the economy contracted by 10.5%, while inflation hit 17.6%.
Mohammed Al-Saadi, Yemen's planning and international co-operation minister, told delegates at the last Friends of Yemen meeting, in Riyadh on 4 September, that Yemen needed “$11.9bn in the short term”. So far, the major donors responding to his call have been Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and several E.U. states, including Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The Yemeni government, and the international community, seem to view aid as essential to Yemen's future development. Yet there is an ongoing debate among Yemenis about just how beneficial aid is proving to be. The debate is pitched in familiar terms – is aid good for the country in the long-term? How can aid organisations overcome the problems posed by corrupt institutions and inefficient bureaucracies?
Young Yemenis, many politicised by the uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, are split. A debate was held in May at the Spanish embassy in Sana'a and, perhaps surprisingly, 60% of the attendees voted in favour of the motion: “Foreign aid to Yemen causes more harm than good.”
Atiaf Al-Wazir, a researcher and blogger, spoke for the motion in Sana'a, and still supports it: “We have a corrupt government that lacks the capacity to handle large amounts of aid. Before we keep pumping aid, we should build the capacity of the government and make sure it is more transparent so that the money can actually reach the people it is intended for.”
Aid to Yemen is inevitably tied up with the politics of the country. The organisations that foreign NGOs choose to deal with can often be seen as giving tacit approval to certain groups or factions. This then affects what Yemeni NGOs can and cannot do. Wazir says: “Development aid has made some NGOs silent on other issues for fear that their opinion might cost them their funding.”
Yemenis like Wazir instead call for donor organisations to invest in the future of Yemen, with funds for educational institutes and vocational training, as well as increased job opportunities in the country and in the wider region. Baraa Shaiban, a youth activist, supports this approach: “Short-term solutions might be needed in certain places, but it won't solve things in the long term. We need investment. Aid on its own won't solve the issue.”
Proponents of aid accept there have been problems in the past, but say aid is vital for the future of the country. Awssan Kamal, a member of the Yemen Relief and Development Forum, an umbrella charity set up by the Yemeni diaspora in the U.K., says the forum is not simply looking at short-term solutions. “The YRDF is looking forward to building development plans and not just short-term emergency responses, but these need to work in tandem,” he says. “How can you rebuild a country where people can't even feed themselves?”
Many Yemenis complain they have not benefited much from international aid, a view reflected by the human rights minister, Hooria Mashoor. “Many [Yemenis] are not satisfied about international aid because they don't feel it,” Mashoor says. “It does not touch their life at all. Their life conditions are not improving.”
The forum aims to avoid the problems affecting other aid organisations working in Yemen that have tried to change Yemeni opinion on aid. The YRDF will only work with local NGOs that provide reports on where the money being sent to them is going, in an attempt to stamp out corruption.
The group also aims to use the power of the 80,000-strong Yemeni diaspora in the U.K. to help Yemen to move forward. The community has already helped to raise £250,000 for aid. The sum is a drop in the ocean compared to the $6.4bn pledged by the international community, but British Yemenis view it as an important start and an effective means by which to lobby the U.K. government to carry on helping Yemen.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Yemen is worsening. Both pro- and anti-foreign aid advocates are desperately seeking ways to get the country out of the quagmire it is in. For now, the response of the international community is the same as ever: pump in more money.