Al-Salam school sits on the fringe of Sana’a; at first glance, it looks like a typical school in Yemen: 25 classrooms, 80 students per class, and growing with 300-400 new enrollments a year.
All the signs pointed to the all-too-common, under-performing, overcrowded and poor quality school found throughout Yemen.
When National Yemen asked a student what she had learned in class recently, the answer was surprising.
“In our past lesson, I wrote a story about my favorite place to visit, in English, I then posted it on the internet and students from around the world commented on it,” said the 3rd level student with perfect English as she formatted photos and uploaded them to her online website using a sleek new computer at the internet lab at Al-Salam.
An under performing school? Far from it.
Al-Salam was not just providing quality education to the students, but an education at the forefront of technology rarely found at even private universities throughout the country. Where did this success come from?
Enter the Yemen Social Fund for Development (SFD), a highly successful government organization initiated in 1997 to help contribute to the government’s efforts to reduce poverty. Al-Salam is just one of the 27 schools throughout Yemen receiving strong support from the SFD in an pilot program that is focused on improving learning and teaching methods to provide an education that meets the current demands of the students.
While a substantial amount of resources has been earmarked toward education, this area is not the only focus for the Social Fund for Development. Ten other sectors such as health, water and sanitation, agriculture and rural development, rural roads, social protection, labor work programs, cultural heritage, training and capacity building and extensive efforts in small and micro enterprise development have experienced the positive change brought by the activities of the Social Fund.
The SFD has received high praise from its partners as it has efficiently and transparently funded over 11,000 projects with $1.22 billion in only 14 years of operation, working in each areas with the same success found at Al-Salam school.
One of the most unique interventions achieved under the aegis of SFD is its cultural heritage sector. In an effort to create jobs while preserving Yemen’s rich history, the SFD has brought in international experts that train Yemenis the skills that will enable them to safeguard their national cultural heritage.
Projects such as the Great Mosque in Sana’a have seen extensive restoration and excavation projects as well as many other important areas such as the Al-Ashrafiya Madrasa/Mosque project and the Ghail Al-Awar Tunnel, just to name a few.
One of the most highly successful interventions is the labor-intensive work program benefiting 16,000 poor households which created over 850,000 days of work in 2009 alone. It seeks to provide cash-paying jobs for unskilled laborers migrating from rural areas, as well as creating work opportunities in rural areas in which living conditions are exacerbated by rising food prices and droughts.
Success in Harsh Conditions
It is important to understand the significance the SFD’s success as they have been implemented in “impossible conditions…[where beneficiaries] live in 140,000 villages scattered about throughout Yemen, with weak infrastructure and difficult geography” said Abdulelah Taqi, SFD’s Senior Communications Officer.
Yet it is the unique structure of the organization and its adaptation to Yemeni society that allows them to overcome these hurdles. “The structure is a very simple form of management: there is the executive manager, there are the head of the units, and then after that is the project managers and after that, that’s all” explained Dr. Majed Al-Sharjabi, Head of the SFD Health Sector.
With its institutional autonomy, the SFD is able to recruit highly-qualified staff and is the only Yemeni government organization that can effectively fire employees. This simple structure of committed individuals allows the organization to be flexible and agile as it addresses the dynamic issues which contribute to poverty in Yemen.
Dr Al-Sharjabi stressed the importance of a straightforward system which enables “easy communication with communities; they can contact us very easily. A person can make a request…meet and discuss [their] needs with the SFD…and it can be anyone in the community, not necessarily a sheikh.”
By working directly with communities, SFD taps into one of the greatest strengths of Yemeni society. SFD’s Community Local Development Initiative helps the local communities to not only identify their needs but train them and their local governance to develop projects that will address those needs.
Thus SFD is a “change agent” for the country as a whole. “[We are trying] to recreate initiatives by the community…for the community. Our country is famous with these initiatives, the most famous dams in the ancient world were done by communities in Yemen,” said Dr. Sharjabi.
With such an extensive list of intervention areas and a rapidly increasing budget, SFD is criticized for doing too much and moving in on the traditional roles of ministry responsibilities. The most pointed disapproval comes from the Yemen government, as many officials believe that by working in so many different sectors, they are duplicating the responsibilities of the government ministries.
These criticisms are directed at a program which was only intended to be a short-term response to the structural economic reforms of the 1990’s. Questions remain as to whether the SFD will be a temporary or permanent institution. Ongoing discussions are trying to identify how it can effectively integrate its know-how experience with existing line ministries as the SFD develops or dissolves in the future.
Yet Mr. Taqi, argues that SFD should be seen as an important supporting role to the work of the ministries. “We build [within] the strategies of the ministries such as planning or education and through this we support them.” SFD has worked hard to create the political space to promote their work by creating understanding between the roles of SFD and the respective ministries.
As a result, Dr. Al-Sharjabi explained, “[ministries] now supply us with their plans so we can make amendments to accommodate their vision.” Through this the SFD believes it is effectively supporting the needs of the government and not just duplicating its efforts.
Eye on the Future
The role of the SFD is not expected to end anytime soon. Donors have increasingly preferred to fund Yemen initiatives through the SFD due to the transparency and effectiveness in their project management, which is rarely matched by any other development organization or agency.
With ample support of over 15 donors led by the World Bank, the SFD is planning to implement its fourth phase of development throughout 2011 – 2015. This phase will build on lessons learned from the previous phases and expand successful projects already implemented such as the Labor Intensive Work Program.
Additionally, Mr. Taqi explained that the fourth phase SFD will seek to increase collaboration with government ministries as well as local governorates in an attempt to promote decentralization.
“In this phase, we will implement a pilot project which will fund 40 local councils so they can implement the projects themselves. We will provide trainings on policies and methodologies from our [experiences] so they can become the implementers” added Mr. Taqi.
Fulfilling the Needs of Yemen
When National Yemen asked Mrs. Mona, a teacher at Al-Salam school, if they could have reached this level of success without the SFD she could only laugh and shake her head in a way that expressed how much they were indebted to their support.
“We are so fortunate but many other schools don’t even receive this type of support,” said one teacher. Growing on the success of the program at Al-Salam, the SFD plans to expand this successful program of educational support to over 177 schools.
Mrs. Mona went on and stressed that despite their success with SFD’s help, many challenges remained for their school. They have managed admirably but struggle to expand their technology programs as they have only 10 computers for all of the students at the school. Power frequently cuts out disrupting or even canceling the classes for the students. The dropout rate among girls remains high.
Yet these adversities reflect the larger needs the country has yet to fulfill. Just as Mrs. Mona looks to continued and growing support to address the issues at Al-Salam and at other schools; Yemen looks to the Social Fund for Development to take the lead in solving many of the problems that afflict the country.