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 human rights.
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 impede progress.
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’ procedural requirements.
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." Well, yes.
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 to exist.
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.