A foiled al Qaeda bomb plot has again highlighted the peril to the West posed by Yemen’s slide towards state failure, a fate that would also spell disaster for 23 million Yemenis already mired in hunger and poverty.
Western and Gulf Arab donors have so far failed to brake that downward momentum. Galvanised by an attempt by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing to blow up a US-bound airliner on December 25, they met as “Friends of Yemen” in January to coordinate aid.
Almost a year after those London talks, competing claims to foreign funds have hamstrung the effort. Money is tied up in red tape, uncoordinated or misspent on side projects, officials and analysts say, Reuters reports.
Donors meet again in Riyadh in February to have another go at nailing down priorities before it is too late.
“Yemen is running out of oil, it’s running out of water, and it may be running out of time,” Alan Duncan, a British minister for international development, told a conference this week at London’s Chatham House think-tank.
“The security of the future of Yemen … is about what all of Yemen’s friends do, and crucially, how we all act together.”
Insecurity and corruption have scared many foreign investors away from Yemen, a modest oil and gas producer, crippling badly needed efforts to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons.
Yemen may become a net oil importer by 2017. One of the world’s most water-stressed countries, it already imports 75 percent of its food. Its population is growing 2.9 percent a year. Nearly a third of Yemenis suffer from chronic hunger.
Over half of Yemeni children aged under 5 are malnourished, according to the UN Children’s Fund. More than 40 percent of adults are illiterate. Women are especially badly off, with Yemen ranking bottom of UN gender disparity tables.
Such woeful figures illustrate the long-term failure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government to meet social needs or alleviate the poverty which fuels a daunting blend of security challenges: sporadic revolt in the north, southern secessionism and al Qaeda militancy, as well as tribal fights.
“At least since 1997, the Saleh regime has demonstrated repeatedly that it lacks the will and capacity to make Yemen viable and sustainable,” said US scholar Robert Burrowes.
Donors are mindful of the corruption that has pervaded Yemen and eroded state legitimacy during Saleh’s three decades in power, but have little choice but to deal with the long-serving leader.
“Economic reform, more than conventional economic development, is more likely to improve the lot of Yemenis and shrink the pool of al Qaeda recruitment,” Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani told Reuters from Sanaa.
He said even Saleh himself had offered donors the option of implementing projects directly to cut corruption.
Yemen is again calling for help, but the Sanaa government’s priorities do not always coincide with those of donors, themselves divided over where to target limited resources.
For the United States, security comes first, particularly after last week’s interception, thanks to a Saudi tip-off, of two parcel bombs en route to US destinations from Yemen.
“We have a challenge in terms of picking which problems we’re going to address,” Janet Anderson, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for the Arabian Gulf and the Maghreb, said at Chatham House. “But we have to address the security problem, because otherwise we can’t have aid workers on the ground who can deal with medium and long-term issues.”
Some humanitarian agencies complain of a funding shortfall.
“Only about 50 percent of the funding requested through the UN humanitarian response plan has been committed. There are still serious unmet needs,” said Ashley Clements, a policy adviser at Oxfam, calling for more money for food security.
Yemen, which has managed to spend only a fraction of the US$4.7 billion pledged by donors in 2006, acknowledges some of its own shortcomings in defining where it needs the most help.
“We haven’t done a good job of articulating priorities,” said Jalal Yaqoub, Yemen’s deputy finance minister.
RISK OF FRAGMENTATION
Yemen and its foreign friends all call for a comprehensive, coordinated approach, but, damagingly, can’t agree on specifics.
“Fragmented donor flows have contributed to the fragmentation of Yemen itself,” said Duncan, the British aid minister. The Riyadh meeting is “possibly a golden opportunity, and a chance to address Yemen’s problems before it’s too late.”
Yet the magnitude of Yemen’s crises and the “kleptocratic” nature of Saleh’s rule make it unlikely that foreign donors can achieve much, according to Burrowes, the US analyst.
“Deflecting Yemen’s trajectory towards state failure requires complex coordination of external and domestic forces to effect massive changes in economic and social policy and governance.
“The Friends of Yemen could have a major role, but it will have to use carrots and sticks more effectively and with greater resolve than the international community has in the past.”