Spurred by reports of an anti-Islam film originating in the United States – The Innocence of Muslims – that mocks the prophet Muhammad, tragic violence continued across the Middle East much of last week. The aggressive anti-US protests that have followed attacks at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya starkly illustrate the challenges of engaging with a changing Middle East.
Some American lawmakers have called for the Obama administration to respond to this violence by cutting off US assistance to some of those countries where violent protests have broken out. While this frustration is understandable, US disengagement would almost certainly undermine these fragile states at a critical moment in their transitions. This, in turn, would harm US interests in supporting stable democratic transitions, while undermining moderate and constructive local actors who are key change agents in the region.
The importance of continued US engagement is perhaps clearest in Yemen, where protesters stormed the US embassy in Sanaa on Sept. 13. Such violence underscores the turmoil already gripping that country as it grapples with the dual challenges of a major humanitarian crisis and a difficult political transition after decades of dictatorship.
As one of the major international aid organizations working in the country, our nonprofit charitable organization, Mercy Corps is actively responding to humanitarian needs there. From a humanitarian perspective, we can attest that what is needed is a US reset, rather than a retreat.
The US and other international donors will gather later this month in New York for the “Friends of Yemen” donor conference with an important opportunity to recalibrate the world’s support for Yemen. The US approach to Yemen to date has focused primarily on addressing symptoms – humanitarian needs, political violence, and extremism. It has done little to address the root causes these challenges.
Such a reorientation could be transformative for Yemen – and for US interests in that country and the broader region. That potential is evident in the recent progress seen in the regional capital of Taiz, which is Yemen’s third largest city and often dubbed the heart of the country’s revolution.
Taiz, like most of the country, faces a humanitarian emergency. Although markets are brimming with food, a staggering one fifth of those living there go to bed hungry, and 40 percent do not have access to safe drinking water. Unemployment is rampant, affecting 1 out of almost every 2 people.
The repercussions of these circumstances play out in the day-to-day lives of women in Taiz like Amina, a mother of six whom Mercy Corps began supporting with food vouchers after she brought her two-year-old daughter Amat – who weighed just 12 pounds at the time – to the local clinic for emergency treatment. Amina’s husband is unable to secure reliable employment, and the family can barely afford rice and beans for their children. Their story is emblematic of the broader challenge facing Yemen.
If children like Amat are unable to access sufficient food and clean water – especially during the vital early years of their lives – medical research shows they could face negative lifelong health impacts. This story, when multiplied by the tens of thousands of children who are also acutely malnourished, illustrates the seriousness and scope of the crisis for Yemen’s future.
And the crisis isn’t simply one of health and nutrition. In a letter to President Obama in June, a group of leading Yemen and foreign policy experts in the US known as the Yemen Policy Initiative warned that unless Yemenis believe that their government can provide them with access to food, water, electricity, health care, and education, they will feel disenfranchised, and this in turn could further fuel extremism.
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.
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.