The transitional peace process in Yemen is struggling to move forward and billions of dollars of aid assistance is going untapped, according to UK Minister of State for International Development Alan Duncan.
“The National Dialogue does remain off-schedule,” he said, “which is seriously undermining confidence in the transition process… The delivery of a successful dialogue, on schedule, would be a major signal to the Yemeni people that their leaders are serious about addressing the divisive issues which drive conflict in the country.”
Duncan was speaking at an international conference on Yemen at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on 12-13 January, which brought together academics, Yemeni government ministers, diplomats and international humanitarian organizations.
One senior international observer told IRIN he believed the whole process was at least two months behind where it should be by now.
“The transition is threatened by those who have still not understood that change must now occur,” said the UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, when he briefed the UN Security Council last month.
The political transitional process in Yemen - the Middle East’s least developed country - was agreed with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the UN Security Council after Yemen’s own version of the Arab Spring, which formally ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in 2012.
It allows for six months of national dialogue, and three months to draft a new constitution, followed by a referendum and fresh elections - all before February 2014.
More peaceful than expected
Yemen’s foreign minister, Abubakr al-Qirbi, acknowledged that international partners were worried by possible delays to the National Dialogue, but pointed out that the transition process so far had gone much more smoothly, and more peacefully, than the pessimists had anticipated.
“Yemenis, as you know, are a well-armed community,” he said. “And therefore people can anticipate that if war flares up, what is going to be the cost of that war. And that, I think, was an important factor.”
Applications opened this week for the National Dialogue Conference, which was supposed to take place in November, but which has been delayed by the refusal of southern separatists wanting an independent South Yemen.
Al-Qirbi said it was essential that, in order to get full participation, people felt the Dialogue was responsive to their needs and that any issue could be raised.
But, he said, “the regional and international powers realize that the unity of Yemen is of utmost importance for the stability of the region and the world. I think that the message which has been carried by many ambassadors to all parties in Yemen is that the unity of Yemen is one important objective of the GCC initiative. No one has spoken about the possibility of separation.”
“The Forum will address all grievances and how we can reverse the mismanagement which has taken place since unification.”
Duncan referred to nearly US$8 billion, pledged by Yemen’s international partners in support of the transition, but still waiting on concrete project proposals– though humanitarian aid projects are clearly outlined in the yet unfunded 2013 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan.
“This money is ready, and waiting to be spent. We can’t afford to have these promised billions sitting around unused. Unlocking donor funds so that they can start making a difference on the ground is vital to the confidence of ordinary Yemenis in the transition which is so vital for its success.”
The reluctance of southern separatist politicians to take part in the transition process has been one of the major stumbling blocks, and there were major demonstrations in Aden on 13 January in favour of self-rule for the south, a separate state prior to 1990.
Anthropologist Susanne Dahlgren, of the University of Helsinki, has been working with young people in Aden, and she found the desire for separation strong, even in a generation too young to remember South Yemen’s existence as a separate state.
“What they have learned about South Yemen is from their parents, basically. And their parents have told them that in the PDRY [People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen] everyone had a job and a good salary in order to be able to marry, and now these young people who are struggling with unemployment and the effects of the economic crisis are having all kinds of problems in getting married.”
Unemployment is a huge issue among the educated young people Dahlgren was talking to. “If Aden had still been the capital,” she said, “they would have been the kind of young people one would expect to run the country, businesses and the media, but seeing as they came from the wrong part of the country - that’s what they said - they could not expect ever to be able to make use of their education. For them, having a job means having a government job, and so they feel unjustly deprived.”
These young people had been deeply involved in the Arab Spring protests of 2011, but the upheaval has made it even less likely that they will find jobs.
Normal economic activity ground almost to a halt with the revolution; a million jobs were lost, GDP fell by 10 percent, according to Peter Rice, coordinator of International NGO Forum in Yemen. For the poor and the many thousands of displaced, things have been very hard.
Almost half the population of Yemen do not know where their next meal is coming from, and more than half the children are chronically malnourished - one of the highest rates in the world.
Rice says families have been forced into what he calls “negative coping strategies”.
“We are seeing an increase in child labour, an increase in early marriage, and a lot of households going into debt to pay for basic food expenditure, which really affects the ability of the family to recover from the crisis, and means that this humanitarian situation is being written into the long-term development of the country.”
And, he says, there has still been no bounce-back in GDP or government investment, despite the transition agreement and greater stability.
Rice fears that a protracted National Dialogue could also prove to be another massive distraction from necessary action.
He told IRIN: “Everyone wants this process to work, undoubtedly, but there’s a lot of time and effort being put into the National Dialogue, and it’s important that it gets done so that people can devote those resources to development.”
Infrastructure versus humanitarian needs
After the transition plan was put together, Yemen received financial pledges of nearly $8 billion from international donors, to support a recovery plan, much of it from members of the GCC, including Saudi Arabia.
But Richard Stanforth, Oxfam’s regional policy adviser, told IRIN that it was not going where there was most need. “Many of the donors put money into infrastructure, into roads and buildings and yet the humanitarian appeal remained underfunded.”
“The Gulf often does put money into infrastructure projects, but we have seen across all donors that they like to fund infrastructure, and they are not addressing the humanitarian needs. You won’t be able to bring development if you don’t address the humanitarian crisis.”
And while stability and security would help aid delivery, improving the humanitarian and economic situation would also help the peace process, according to the Yemen humanitarian coordinator, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
“If we don’t address and tackle the humanitarian and economic crisis today, there will be no political stability.”