SANAA, 17 March 2010 (IRIN) – What mechanisms are in place to ensure that international aid reaches its intended recipients in Yemen rather than corrupt officials? How effective has aid delivery been hitherto?
These are some of the questions aid workers and analysts have been asking as instability looms in the wake of widespread political turmoil and a faltering economy.
On the face of it Yemen has significant problems: Dwindling oil revenues; 250,000 internally displaced persons; growing discontent in the south; fears over increased Al-Qaeda activity; stubbornly high youth unemployment and a rapidly growing population; food insecurity; shrinking water resources – and many more.
Recent international aid conferences on Yemen – in London on 27 January and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) on 27 February – have attempted to address or prioritize some of these problems.
Ahead of the London conference, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi pleaded for more international aid to combat unemployment and poverty which are seen as exacerbating the current political turmoil.
But, according to a September 2009 Carnegie Endowment report entitled Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral, foreign aid is hampered by capacity limitations and domestic corruption.
“A major question for foreign donors is whether Yemen has the capacity at present to absorb more aid money,” the report said.
Former Finance Minister Saif al-Asali told the Yemen Observer in March 2009 that, in general, government institutions were not in a position to use effectively the money provided. “The government believes it can use the [aid] money through Yemeni institutions, but the donors believe that these Yemeni institutions are not [good] enough and unable to use the money effectively.”
A senior international aid official who requested anonymity said: “Aid and delivery of basic services to local communities is a major challenge in Yemen. There is no existing compact between government and citizens on the delivery of basic services funded by income tax. There is no system I’m aware of which tracks the flow of aid through to the point where it should reach communities.”
There needs to be greater decentralization of decision-making and budgetary control – to district level – if basic services are to reach the vast majority of the population, he said.
“International supporters of Yemen need to consider channelling more development funding through international and national civil society organizations, alongside its direct support to government and parastatal agencies.”
Absorption of development aid appeared to be related to the capacities of line ministries and the major Yemeni parastatal and civil society organizations, he added.
Mohammed al-Dhahri, a professor at the Sanaa University, told IRIN aid money is often mis-spent by corrupt government officials, something echoed by another analyst.
“Development aid to Yemen is often stolen, misappropriated or diverted from the intended recipients. Without a new regimen of oversight and financial transparency, donor aid will have little impact on the lives of the neediest Yemeni citizens,” Jane Novak, a US-based analyst and expert on Yemeni affairs, told IRIN.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2009 gives Yemen a very low ranking (17th out of 19 countries in the Middle East and North Africa).
Mustafa Nasr, chairman of the Economic Media Centre, said international aid should be based on guarantees Yemen can give donors. “Corruption and the conflicts of interest of government members make it impossible for Yemen to make effective use of donor funds and local resources,” he said.
“A small part of [international] aid is spent on projects and the remainder goes to senior tribal leaders in exchange for their allegiance to the state,” al-Dhahri told IRIN.
“Support to tribal leaders has been a key element of the patronage system in Yemen for centuries. [but] the appropriateness and viability of its continuance in contemporary Yemen, particularly in the light of drastic recent falls in national revenue, has to be open to serious question,” said the above-mentioned senior aid official.
Commenting on how the US Agency for International Development (USAID) deals with corruption and patronage in Yemen, Murad Barakat, USAID’s democracy and governance specialist in Sanaa, said: “USAID does not work directly with the Yemeni government; we do not face any of these issues [corruption/patronage] directly. USAID implements its projects through implementing partners such as Save the Children, NDI [National Democratic Institute], UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], etc,” Barakat said.
“USAID also provides support to SNACC [Supreme National Authority for Combating Corruption], HTB [Higher Tender Board], and COCA [Central Organization for Control and Audit] to improve transparency and credibility within these key government institutions. Currently USAID provides SNACC with a legal adviser to support them in selecting, processing and prosecuting corruption cases. There has been a certain amount of political will to combat corruption, mainly from SNACC.”
In February Transparency International (TI) launched a handbook to help aid groups combat practices that stop help from reaching the needy.
Some US$4.7 billion was pledged for 2007-2010 at a major donor meeting in London on 15-16 November 2006. However, according to some reports, less than 10 percent of that amount has so far been delivered, with donors concerned the government lacks the capacity to make efficient use of the funds.