Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ella with house guards Bashir and Saleem

Every Friday Bashir, Saleem, and Nasser (not pictured here) get dressed in the traditional garb of Yemen

Monday, June 25, 2007

World Bank Conference at Sana University (By Andrew)

Yesterday I attended a World Bank conference held at Sana University. The main theme of the conference was “Yemen Development Policy Review and Country Social Analysis.” There were several key speakers including the President of Sana University Khaled Tamim and Yemen’s World Bank Country Manager Dr. Mutahar Al-Abbasi. The reports discussed at the meeting were regarded as highly controversial, infeasible, and necessary all at the same. Dr. Ali Al-Abdulrazzaq of the World Bank described how Sana University prepared the reports in which the World Bank builds on, but these reports should have appeared in circulation six months earlier. However, writing the reports is no easy task.

Dr. Yahia Al-Anssi, a professor at Sana University, described the pressures of human populations increase and the possibility of oil resources, which account for 90% of exports, disappearing in a few years. After describing the difficulties facing his country, Dr. Yahia ended on a positive note by saying “there is a possibility that this dark picture changes.”

Other key topics of concern included weaknesses in the quality of administration. Dr Yahia raised the question of why does Yemen have the lowest quality of administration in the Middle East and is considered a Democratic country? This rhetorical question was not meant to persuade the audience to reconsider Democracy, rather to reconsider the current measures against anti-corruption in the government. One central component to increasing economic stability in Yemen is to cut all oil subsidies. On the other hand, it is near impossible to cut all oil subsidies when the people already remember the tremendous damaged caused by removing food subsidies in the 1990’s. According to Dr. Yahia, the average Yemeni wants his life to remain on a certain level and does not care about these changes to increase long run economic stability. Thus, there is a major tradeoff in terms of oil subsidies. Either cut the subsidies and hurt the average Yemeni but increase economic stability, or leave the subsidies and help the citizens but hurt economic stability.

The critique of these World Bank reports was equal to if not less than the critique of the Yemeni government. One panel member described how the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Planning are working in two separate canyons. In addition to separation within government ministries, corruption (as mentioned before) continues to prove extremely detrimental to any economic improvements. The same panel member estimated that corruption costs the Yemeni government 128 billion reyal each year.

After several questions from the audience, mainly directed at cutting oil subsidies, a World Bank representative agreed to answer the questions now rather than at the end of the conference. He agreed that it would be unrealistic and “suicidal” to cut all oil subsidies before strengthening the safety net of society. He went on to say the public must trust the government to use funds in a credible manner. After this comment I asked myself, why should the public trust the government when near 128 billion reyal is lost every year solely due to corruption?

Overall, the conference was both informational and enlightening. However, I felt I had left with more questions remaining unanswered. After hearing the information presented and questions by the audience, I too hope there is a possibility that this dark picture changes.

The Five Billion Dollar Question (By Taimoor)

(This is a picture of Ali Abdullah Saleh the president/dictator/strongman (bil arabi:al-haakim) of Yemen. His face is everywhere in Yemen. Even people who don't like him often find it politic to display him. His picture is the only image more common than the coca-cola symbol (bil arabi: Koka-Kola)

I work at the NDI, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, in Yemen. It is an NGO created and funded partly by the United States government and partly by an assortment of other mostly western interests. The purpose of the group is to spread and foster democracy in the world and suffice it to say that NDI Yemen has its work cut out for it.
One has to admit though that the organization sounds a tad sinister. Professor Lo recently asked me if I thought that NDI, with its Western backing and its admittedly nebulous goal of “spreading democracy” was truly acting in the best interests of the Yemeni people. To him I said, perhaps a little defensively, that NDI was far from Bush Doctrine. NDI focuses on the development of democratic institutions such as Universal suffrage, party plurality, anti-corruption, election monitoring, constituency responsibility, and women’s involvement with and in the government rather than on the implementation of particular legislation, including those regarding international relations. “Democracy does not look the same for everyone”, one of their pamphlets read.
I told Professor Lo that as long as NDI was fostering democratic institutions and making the government of Yemen more responsive to its citizens, why should it matter who backs the organization? For the most part, I still agree.
My problem with NDI concerns not its motives, which as I said I don’t believe are truly relevant, but with the success or lack thereof of its programs on administrative change. Yemen today is overwhelmingly controlled by one party, the ruling GPC (General People’s Congress Party) a political party that has traditionally believed in inclusion rather than plurality and as such which labels itself moderate and stands for pretty much anything that anyone in Yemen could possibly be interested in: Capitalism and Socialism, Islam and Secularism, Traditional tribal values and Modernism, Women’s rights and not-so-much-for-Women’s-rights. In practice though, the party, run by current president of Yemen for over 28 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, effectively maintains itself through a network of bribes and kickbacks which sap the budget of the Yemeni government while failing to accomplish any of the real, needed administrative changes. Think of the GPC as a Wal-mart on Christmas Eve: a lot advertised, but very little offered.
Though admittedly, the electoral system in Yemen has, in recent years, improved considerably, a decent amount of corruption does still exist. In many poling locations for example, the GPC controlled police and military are seen carrying guns into election centers, effectively intimidating voters. The government, a.i. the GPC, has jurisdiction over the State’s religious establishment. I recently found out that the Imams of Yemeni Mosques are only allowed to lead prayers, while the Friday khutba, or sermon, is given by a separate individual, a state sponsored Kaatib. It is not surprising then that many “religious scholars” are seen to support the GPC come election time even over the moderately Islamist Islah party. A lot, though not all, the media is controlled by the government, as is the cell phone company which infamously sent a text message to all cell phones near election time last election proclaiming that Islamic Jurists support Ali Abdullah Saleh, clearly breaking the governments own no mixing politics and religion law.
And yet despite all of this, it can not be denied that the government has made some positive strides in electoral plurality. Military and police influence in elections have been significantly reduced in the 2003 as opposed to the 1997 elections, as have ballot reading irregularities, and some of the grosser violations. For perhaps the first time, the coalition of the Yemeni political parties put forth a real candidate rather than a straw man, a candidate that managed to win (according to official estimates) 28% of the total vote, an almost revolutionary high number for Yemen.
So is Yemen on the right track to legitimate democracy? The World Bank seems to think so if its 5 billion dollars in loans and grants to Yemen in 2005 is any indication. This comes after a period of reduced funding following the last election due to governmental corruption.
A wise man once said, “Follow the money.” And here, I believe, we have found it. Yemen is the poorest Arab country, and in fact one of the very poorest countries in the world. It has a little oil, only about three or four years of confirmed easily assessable oil reserves left, and considering that about 75% of the budget of the government comes from oil revenue, it is easy to see the yawning cliff up ahead. Every penny, given the circumstances, helps. One can’t help wondering whether the GPC’s promises of “electoral reform” are kosher or merely a long con.
Have election reforms affected the essential nature of the government? The GPC continues to have a monopoly, a two-thirds majority in parliament as well as a very powerful president with all the connections and political capital that the Yemeni government’s budget can afford. Corruption runs rampant in the Parliament, and is even institutionalized to the point that, my NDI boss S.T. says that one has to become corrupt to remain within the system or be forced out. Opposition leaders are hesitant to criticize the GPC too strongly for fear of retaliation. They are also hesitant to boycott elections to draw attention to the illegitimacy of the system, for after all the GPC with its vast and varied demographics could easily branch off a few more political parties to make the election an interesting race. Islah, the second largest political party in Yemen, and the only real challenge to the GPC, was actually originally created by and supportive of the GPC to effectively “crowd out” the Yemeni Socialism Party while still providing the trappings of a legitimate democracy.
Very little real administrative change has come from the limited electoral reforms of the GPC, while the few tangible results of the system serve to legitimize or at least offer a veneer of legitimacy to the system in the eyes of the International community, as can be seen from the World Bank’s recent five billion dollars in aid. This money, as well as the support of many Nations, including the United States which fears a rise in terrorism from Yemen if Saleh’s administrative power is reduced, puts the GPC in a truly enviable position: the appearance and rewards of being a democracy, without any of the usual concomitant loss of dictatorial power.
I asked Dr. S.T. whether he thought that NDI’s policies granted undeserved legitimacy to an illegitimate system, or whether they were actually conducive to change. He paused and then said, “Both.” Having worked at NDI for almost three weeks now, I don’t have a better answer.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Yemeni Children march for more government funding (By Andrew)

Since arriving in Yemen on June 9th I have had the honor to work with The
Democracy School, a grass roots organization located about a mile from the
University. In addition to learning valuable lessons in aiding the community, I
have been given quite a number of Arabic classes in the director’s office; of
course, all the lessons have been free of charge. At the NGO Isabel and I have
seen the intricate workings of planning marches, distributing posters and
videos, and reaching all the people of Sana independent of age and social

A few days into the internship, I witnessed the labor-intensive production of
the above-mentioned movies. The director of the NGO, Dr. Jamal, led us to a
room, no bigger than a student’s dorm room, functioning as the stage, art
design studio, and break room of a traditional movie set. The cast and crew
include one man responsible for the cutouts of the characters, another man
sketching the character’s features, and a woman adjusting the characters and
camera to an ?animation setting.? The characters appear to come to life as
her hands glide over the stage, moving the characters ½ inch as the camera
pauses every second. After eight takes, the Democracy School has filmed about 2
seconds of real time in their movie. Yesterday, I was able to receive a ?sneak
peek? of the movie and when asked what I thought I signaled two thumbs up and
a subtle excellent “momtaz”.

Besides witnessing the filming process, I participated in a march to raise
budget expenditures for children’s education in Sana. The march was a success
in gathering near 1,000 children in a very short time frame. Each child was
given a shirt displaying the theme of the march and small groups were handed
large banners to wave during the march. The organizer of this march was
Abdullah al-Thawr, a boy my age at the Democracy School. He intends to apply to
several U.S. schools for this upcoming academic year. When I asked Abdullah why
the march was not named after the Democracy School, he causally replied that
the march is not for the Democracy School, rather for the children of Sana. I
had never participated in something as breathtaking as the march from Taher
Square to Parliament. My task, taking photos, was simple because even someone
who had never picked up a camera could make this scene appear beautiful. The
energy from all those in the march was felt by every onlooker and god willing
the parliament will raise the budget. However, parliaments decision aside, the
march was a complete success in my eyes.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Old City (Duke Team from left to right: Isabelle, Ella, Andrew, Tyler, Taimoor, Professor Lo) (By Taimoor)

The city of Sana'a is really two cities: the old city and the new city. More on the new city later. The old city is like an extended white iced ginger bread village, with buildings that thrust and rise from the ground like rising dough. It does not have the absolute symmetry of U.S. cities that I've seen before, cities that look as if they were planned and built and whose roads lead where you expect them to. Old Sana'a is a city that appears to have grown rather than been built by humans. The roads meander and cure through the city and the traveler learns to follow the exact path to wherever they want to go. Paths that logic seems to dictate are shortcuts are more often than not veritable rabbit holes that will take you to places completely different and unexpected. The city seems to breath and shift as you move through its curved bridges and smooth, stone paved roads. The buildings seem to be at once sharp and smooth, completely choatic, and yet sublimely symmetrical in its chaos.

The city is breathtaking, the architecture like a window into an Ottoman city at the height of the empire, or like what one would imagine a city to look like if it were alive. Cool blue mountains jut from just behind the city, like a mother cradling a child. And perhaps appropriately considering that UNESCO has named old Sana'a a World Heritage site. Thankfully that designation has helped to greatly alleviate the encroachement of new buildings into the city, though the city is still at risk, because unlike many other world heritage cites, people still live in Old Sana'a.

But as spectacular as the city looks, it is for the Market (bil arabi: "Souq")that most travelers (including yours truly) actually come for. More on the Souq later.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

R-E-S-P-E-C-T Yemeni style (By Taimoor)

So this is our very own Ella (bil arabi: "Elli") attended a leadership workshop for Yemeni women. It was our first day in Yemen, we having arrived the previous night and flopped into our respective beds , finally allowing the 26 hours of constant travel (including time spent vegetating at airports) to catch up with us. We were excited that morning, jumped up under the combined influence of being in a foreign country for the first time and imbibing the additively delicious yemeni red tea (bil arabi: "chai ahmar") which is pretty much sugar and caffeine in liquid form, and which can be purchased pretty much anywhere in Yemen, piping hot in little glasses.

Our first stop was the Democracy school, a Yemenese NGO that works with a plethora of grassroots social welfare organizations, particularly for women and children. We guys (Andrew, Me, Tyler (bil arabi: "Tahir"), Professor Lo, and our guide (or arguably handler) Matthew) hung out with Dr. Jamal, the deceptively quiet and surprisingly dynamic manager of the Madrasa Democritia (Democracy School), and Abdullah, a great guy who works at the Democracy school and who speaks English, I was a bit embarrased to notice, much better than we speak Arabic. We drank Coke (bil Arabi: "Coca-Cola") and chatted.

Ella and Isabel, on the other hand, attended what certainly looks like an intensive leadership workshop for women. Want to know what they talked about? Me too. Stay tuned as I try to get one of them to write about their experience.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

DukeEngage - Yemen ( June 8 - August 4, 2007)

Duke student volunteers will be in Sana'a, Yemen working alongside non-profit organizations, also called NGOs. They will tackle multiple dimensions of social injustice and policy issues while they develop Arabic language skills. Partner organizations deal with issues such as Somali refugees in Yemen, human rights and democracy, women and media, and legal rights of children.

Taimoor Aziz (Trinity '09)
Isabelle Figaro (Trinity '10)
Tyler Huffman (Trinity '09)
Ella Lipin (Trinity '10)
Andrew Simon (Trinity '10)