It was the fall of 2005, and we were sitting in the
former minister of planning's large office -- "we"
being two international consultants and the local
representative of an international development agency. We
were there to evaluate a $200,000 project to strengthen
The minister responded to all our questions with that
sharp intelligence characteristic of so many Yemenis, but
also politely wondered why we were there at all. He
gently reminded us that earlier that year leaders from
developed and developing nations had adopted the Paris
Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, a resounding commitment
to respect national leadership and to coordinate aid
accordingly. Why was he being asked to spend his time on
a small, standalone, donor-driven project? A little shame-faced,
we nevertheless pressed on with our agenda -- and on to
our meeting with the minister of human rights.
This issue may not sound like much against the backdrop
of problems plaguing Yemen -- including corruption,
poverty, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and two
major internal conflicts. But after last month's failed
airline attack, Western interest in Yemen is surging, as
more military support -- and more aid -- is promised.
British prime minister Gordon Brown is convening a high-level
meeting at the end of January to help Yemen tackle the
"terrorist threat" by extending military
support and development aid. And in the United States,
Hillary Clinton has been promoting an "integrated
approach" of diplomacy, defense, and development
ever since she took office.
So setting aside for the moment a discussion of whether
it is actually possible to bomb countries with one hand
and develop them with the other -- as the United States
and its allies are already trying to do in Afghanistan
and Iraq -- it is important to ask the question: Why is
Yemen still a least developed country (LDC) after decades
of donor assistance?
LDCs are countries where the per capita income is under $750
a year. There are 49 of them around the world, mostly in
Africa. Haiti is the only one in the Americas. Although
these countries face different development challenges,
they share the problem of weak human capacity. That is
why in Yemen, as in other LDCs, foreign aid can actually
It goes like this: Yemenis get their degrees and start
looking for work. The best go into business or gravitate
to the local offices of foreign aid agencies, where they
are paid much better than in government service. Others
set up non-governmental organizations that attract
funding for areas donors love to support, such as gender
and human rights.
Meanwhile, the government itself is staffed by poorly-paid
professionals. And to make matters worse, much of the
government's time and effort is sucked up in servicing
the requirements of these aid agencies -- tons of
paperwork and many meetings generated by dozens of donors'
The new head of the U.S. Agency for International
Development, Raj Shah, acknowledged the problem at one of
his first press briefings. He said it was very hard to
expect a health minister to offer leadership if he or she
was spending "half or two-thirds of their time
having visitors from different donor agencies... that are
working in a way that's not coordinated or coherent."
When I visited Yemen again last year, I was happy to see
that the minister of education was imposing coordination
on the donor community, though with mixed success given
his ministry's still weak capacity. That was one bright
spot in an otherwise gloomy picture.
The point is, that without strong capacity to manage
development LDC governments are unable to set their own
agendas, and instead remain at the mercy of whatever
approach is being peddled by international organizations
-- structural adjustment, poverty reduction, and the like.
The solution? Most of it is right there in the Paris
Declaration. And there has been some progress. For
example, in some cases donors pool their budgets to
support entire sectors of the country rather than just
managing projects. But change has not gone far enough.
The way the aid business works, Western donor agencies
need to be visible to show their taxpayers that they are
doing something with their money. And inter-governmental
organizations need to be visible to donor governments --
otherwise they would not attract funding and would cease
There is much that is good about aid and much that is
problematic -- including, of course, the problems of a
political nature. (For example, the distorted role of aid
in the Palestinian territories helps to perpetuate the
Israeli occupation by minimizing its costs to Israel.)
What is crucial at this moment is that there needs to be
a deeper discussion about aiding Yemen. Otherwise that
country's problems may just be beginning.
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