Yemen needs a US reset, not a retreat
Last week's violent anti-US protests underscore the need for greater US engagement in Yemen. The country's economic, political, and security future hinges on alleviating humanitarian needs, addressing their root causes, and fostering an inclusive political transition.
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But simply increasing short-term relief aid – although an important stopgap measure – is not a durable solution. What Yemen needs are simultaneous initiatives to build a more dynamic private sector, while supporting market development, job training, and youth employment programs to address systemic issues.Skip to next paragraph
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In other parts of the world – notably the nearby Horn of Africa – the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is piloting a “resilience” approach to aid.
That multi-pronged approach addresses immediate needs while also focusing on the underlying factors that make a population vulnerable to recurring humanitarian crises. Such an approach is sorely needed in Yemen, and the upcoming donors’ conference provides an important opportunity for the US to reorient global donors toward this strategy.
A key part of this shift requires that Yemen make changes in governance.
Amid deteriorating security this last spring, Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi appointed a new governor of Taiz, Shawqi Ahmed Hayel. The governor quickly demanded greater authority over the governorate, including on security issues, breaking with the past practice of centralizing this authority in Sanaa. He simultaneously took steps to increase his own transparency.
Using his new authority, one of his first actions was to open his office to the public once a week so that average citizens could visit him. He also started a Facebook page for Internet users to vent and share their concerns. Within a few months, thousands of comments had streamed in. Topics ranged from security, safety, and sanitation in the city, to the need to rebuild slums and take care of community schools.
Early outcomes of this initiative to engage with the public are encouraging, with fewer weapons in the governorate capital, and relative security compared to other regions. Governor Hayel has also partnered with international donors to overhaul the city’s overburdened water system, creating 300 new jobs for sanitation workers and providing safe water for 480,000 families.
Despite some of the positive changes in Taiz, entrenched, centralized bureaucratic systems continue to impede delivery of core services. To meet demands, local government leaders must be empowered to tackle the issues in their own regions.
Many ordinary citizens in Taiz and particularly youth (which make up 65 percent of the population, over half of whom are unemployed) feel that Sanaa’s political elites politicized and co-opted the revolution and subsequent transition road map. They want to see and feel positive change. To achieve this, national dialogue must bring more voices into the planning processes.
In a Mercy Corps survey of several hundred youth in Taiz, most said they believed the government had failed them but still overwhelmingly wanted to participate in community-level dialogue. Reflecting these potentially divergent viewpoints, one youth leader said, “Before, we felt like we could not do anything, now I feel like I can do something for myself and my country.”
These frustrations can be constructive if engaged, or destructive if left to fester.
Yemen’s future economic and political stability hinges on alleviating humanitarian needs, addressing their root causes, and fostering a meaningful and inclusive political transition. Success is possible. It is time for the US and its donor counterparts to seize the opportunity to achieve it.
Kari Jorgensen Diener is a senior policy advisor on the Middle East with Mercy Corps. Victoria Stanski is a program manager with Mercy Corps in Yemen.