The Breakdown of Civil Society: No progress for civil society without trust

National Yemen

Fernando Carvajal, MA

By Fernando Carvajal, MA

A year has past since the Friends of Yemen group announced their first post-Arab Spring round of aid for Yemen.  If you listen to Yemeni officials, no money has been delivered.

But, if you believe the international community nearly eighty percent has been ‘allocated’.  If you actually know where the pledges come from and who actually has provided assistance to Yemen, then US$2.5 billion has been provided in fuel subsidies by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and UAE, US$1 billion was allocated in 2012 to support the Central Bank and Yemen’s currency by KSA, US$1 billion by Qatar in 2013 for the same purpose, and nearly US$3 billion by KSA to support Yemen’s annual budget.  Aid by the USA and UK amount to around US700 million, to be disbursed over three years (2012-2015). 

Both, donors and the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, claim there are no obstacles to disbursement and Yemen should begin absorbing pledged money for development projects.  More than a year after the first pledge was made.

Yet, many officials, civil society organizations and observers agree obstacles remain, mainly deeply rooted corruption preventing efficient administration of funding and projects.  But this corruption is not confined at the top, there are many ‘one hit wonders’ among Ministry of Social Affairs’ nearly 9000 registered non-profit organizations.  

In the past decade, many efforts have been made to improve coordination between the Yemeni government and donors, the government and civil society and, donors and civil society.  Between expensive consultants and a lack of capacity on the ground projects have always suffered from long-drawn-out timelines, material price inflation, security threats, rotting foodstuffs from delayed delivery or hijackings of containers by tribesmen.  Lets not mention kidnappings of aid workers, which force aid organizations to withdraw staff or temporarily suspend projects, the last of which was the ICRC following the kidnapping of one of its staff members in Abyan province. 

Civil society organizations, local or international, will continue to struggle in Yemen.  International organizations may lose further trust in government institutions unable to effectively engage projects.  They may be forced to abandon Yemen if security conditions prevent work by foreign staff.  Local organizations are not well respected by the population, they are only seen as new income sources for staff rather than a true source of development at the local level.  The same organizations may suffer from further hostility from government institutions who believe non-profit organizations have been politicized by internal actors or the international community.  The relationship between international organizations and local non-profits will suffer from further strain as they witness lower degrees of project impact on the ground, primarily as a consequence of dealing with the same organizations, which have very limited reach in society.  No one organization in Yemen can be successful in projects ranging from capacity building among youth to capacity building among political actors, or from holding one day workshops on Transitional Justice and the next day organizing a panel on the future content of the constitution. 

International non-governmental organizations have limited financial resources, so they are forced to focus on a single issue in order to compete with the rest of the organizations working in-country.  This competition may increase as organizations withdrawing from Afghanistan and Pakistan look to Yemen for their own institutional survival.  Funding limitations also contribute to failures in Yemen as the country is in need of billions of dollars, not a handful of millions. Weekly meetings may provide the INGOs with information on each other’s projects and progress, but it will not produce any degree of coordination to actually address the crises developing nationwide.

Without a mutually beneficial umbrella organization that brings together all Yemeni non-profit organizations, that allows for a more transparent flow of funding and project management, development projects in Yemen will continue as temporary plugs, where one finger plugs a hole while two new holes appear elsewhere. Capacity building is also a waste of funding when it is done outside high schools and universities.  No one retains anything in a one-day workshop, when the basic skills have never been cultivated in schools.