In 1990 Yemen became a single country, with the unification of the Yemen Arab Republic in the North and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the South. It was hailed as a move that would bring prosperity to the country, and stability in the Middle East. Yemen is currently among the poorest countries in the world – 42% of the population live in poverty. Only a quarter of the population live in cities and outside the urban areas population density is low. This makes it difficult to provide essential services to the majority of the population, such as healthcare, education and basic infrastructure. This Life programme asks what is being done to address these fundamental needs of the Yemeni people, and whether anything has been achieved since the unification in 1990 to raise the quality of their lives.
Since then Yemen has been modernising and opening up to the outside world. But internally half its 20 million people still live in absolute poverty. And terrorism is another challenge in this traditionally warlike society.
With poverty and water shortages come poor health services, malnutrition and high infant and child mortality. And in this traditional male-dominated society, women still have an average of over 6 children.
‘Yemen was known as a country where nothing works,’ admits Yemeni Social Affairs Minister Abdulkarim Al Arhabi. But now things are changing. According to World Bank Director for Yemen Robert Hindle, ‘It is a government in my estimation that understands what modernisation means and they do want to change, they are not resisting change.’
One of the most radical approaches taken by the government with the donor agencies is called the Social Fund for Development. ‘We apply the concept of community driven development,’ says Mr Al Arhabi. ‘We identify the underserved areas in the country, deprived areas in the country and we and go and talk to the people and through dialogue we help them to identify their own priorities – we respond to their priorities.’
Lamis Al-Iryani, an educated young woman who is now working for the Social Fund for Development in the rural areas, explains: ‘Yemen lacks a lots of services, basic services. And the need is huge in Yemen, especially in the remote and rural areas.
The object of the Social Fund is to create basic social and economic services to the poor people in Yemen. Social services such as access to basic education, primary health care, water, access to water, potable water.’
Her colleague Afra Al-Ahmadi adds:
‘We started the programme by running an exercise of identifying needs and prioritisation with the communities. And that we managed to do with both men and women but of course each separately. So we had a group of women working with women – social workers, and men working with men and they prioritised. The prioritisation came up with things like water. Safe drinking water.’
On the dry Yemeni plains there’s little rain. Here costly old diesel engines pump up a limited supply of groundwater into tanks. Having a guaranteed constant supply of water is vital to the farmers for self-sufficiency and production of cash crops. It’s also the only local source of drinking water. Each day the main role of the local girls from each nearby village is to spend hours carrying water to their homes on donkeys. But important as it is, water is not the only priority.
Mustapha Al Badani, community worker in a remote village, explains: ‘Instead of having one project, we have an integrated number of projects to improve people’s lives.’
The water tower in nearby Al-Awla is nearing completion and the main water pump is being installed. This pipeline will bring stability and significant long-term economic benefits to the villagers, as described by another community worker, Suheir Baresh: ‘People here rely on agriculture and it’s the basic means of income and because there is less water in the area this has had a bad effect on agriculture, there’s less agriculture causing high unemployment among men and women and the number of poor to be severe. And this directly affects women who are now working on the farms collecting water, feeding animals, rather than getting education.’
In another village, as part of the integrated approach, the Community Centre is being extended to provide healthcare and much needed education facilities. With girls now freed from long hours of collecting water more are free to go to school. With less than half the girls under 12 in the Yemen attending school it’s an important step forward.
The gender divisions of activities in these traditional communities causes problems, according to Afra: ‘There is a very, very strong division of responsibilities, in labour, among men and women. Women’s responsibilities are inside the households, running the family matters, taking care of the kids. They are not part of the public arena at all, at any level and villagers when they take group decisions, women are excluded from those decisions so it’s men who get together, discuss and decide.’
One system that can help people – especially women – start their own business is microfinance – a system of small loans. In Yemen it’s been a difficult concept because tradition dictates that people never borrow money from outsiders, you only borrow money from within your own family. But in the Yemen’s second city of Aden the microfinance programmes are proving to be successful’¦ Naolia has worked her way up with microfinance loans to a business with four looms making fabrics. She’s now employing men to work the machinery.
And some of Aden’s women street cleaners – traditionally at the bottom of the social ladder – are now running a microfinance group. In charge is Jamel Aeish Mohammed: ‘Some of the women didn’t take much money, they took only a little from the group, some of them are willing to takes loans to help them run their small businesses, it is a start for people’¦ So people can start to make very small profits each month on the things they sell’¦ But it’s only just beginning – when we get more experience and learn how to make bigger profits it will get better.’ Extending microfinance to the rural communities is part of a longer term strategy.
Afra is under no illusions about the difficulty of reaching the Millennium Goals in the rural areas: ‘You travel for ten hours to reach a community of 500 individuals’¦ So the government is really challenged’¦ by providing the basic services to all of these communities scattered to the top of mountains and deserts’¦ So I really think it is very challenging to reach the millennium goal with the set date.’
But the government is encouraged by the success of the Social Fund, Mr Al Arhabi says: ‘the government is now taking the performance of the Social Fund as a bench mark and applying pressure on other institutions to improve their performance.’
The latest statistics show that female literacy is increasing and school attendance is growing. The success so far of allowing Yemen’s development projects to work independently of the governments has shown that radical approaches seem to be working.
The Yemen Social Development Fund has its own website. You can read an article published by the World Bank by Yemeni Social Affairs Minister, Abdulkarim Al-Arhabi, on Poverty and Social Risk Management in Yemen. Read also the World Bank’s Country Brief on Yemen, and Yemen at a Glance. There is also a World Bank Working Paper on Yemen and the Millennium Development Goals.
Visit the IMF pages on Yemen, and read the Yemen’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). Unicef’s pages on Yemen cover progress achieved in child health and girls’ education since the reunification of the country.
The World Bank has established the Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest (CGAP) which in turn has set up theMicrofinance Gateway, a large website which includes research and publications, and the latest news, events, and job opportunities in microfinance.
The UN Capital Development Fund has published a paper on Islamic Banking Principles Applied to Microfinance, based on experience in Yemen.
An earlier Life programme, The Miller’s Tale, described Yemen’s flour fortification programme. Two other programmes,Credit Where Credit’s Due, and Because They’re Worth It, describe microfinance initiatives in Bangladesh and China.