The 2011 street revolts that drove Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office and spurred an internationally-monitored democratic political transition were considered a boon for anti-corruption activists, who had spent the past decade trying to foster good governance reforms in a prevailing system of graft to little effect.
But more than two years into the process and despite the impetus given to the new democratization era by interim President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, the anti-corruption agenda is still grappling with a culture of impunity in which people are reluctant to blow the whistle out of fear of losing their jobs, donor funding or worse.
The founder of a local human rights foundation, who requested anonymity, said Saleh’s overthrow dismantled one patronage system only to create a plethora of opportunities for new actors to exploit, increasing the competition.
“Under Saleh, bribery was more standardized - there was a limit to how much a soldier would demand,” he told IRIN. “Now, with no central authority, each group has its own price.”
But for Mohammed Al Basha, spokesperson for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, D.C., this is par for the course. The high levels of corruption Yemen is experiencing "are characteristic of transition periods where you’re going to have people take advantage of the chaotic atmosphere to benefit.”
In a 2013 Yemen Polling Centre survey, 42 percent of respondents said they felt corruption had got worse since 2011.
While respondents said they felt an even bigger decline in jobs, the economy and public services, corruption was a bigger concern to them than the security situation, human rights, women’s rights and the political situation.
“It’s not my job”
An international medical professional who works with trauma victims in a government-run facility in Sana’a told IRIN of daily graft by a fellow aid worker in collusion with the Yemeni military official who runs the facility. It included extracting money from an aid agency’s budget by inflating certain costs or charging for items never purchased.
Due to the risks involved, however, the medical worker decided to ignore the problem.
“It’s not my job. I’m here to support my patients,” he said on condition of anonymity, adding that exposing the corruption could scare away donors, compromise the entire project and ultimately affect the patients.
Yemeni colleagues at the facility expressed doubts that blowing the whistle would accomplish anything, given the legacy of impunity military commanders continue to enjoy, despite slow-moving efforts to bring the military-security apparatus under civilian authority. The Yemeni medical staff told IRIN they feared not only that the military commander would escape punishment, but they would lose their jobs and perhaps face more serious consequences for challenging the commander’s authority.
Such dilemmas are not uncommon in Yemen’s politically sensitive environments in which both aid agencies and donors face pressure to uphold a positive image in the eyes of government officials and the public in general.
“Donors and implementing agencies are generally not keen on denouncing corruption,” Transparency International wrote in its 2005 Global Corruption Report. “They often fear a possible backlash in domestic public opinion that could undermine future support, the risk of local political instability or retribution from local authorities which may lead to the end of programmes benefiting vulnerable populations. Exposing corruption may also lead to a loss of credibility and reputation when direct mismanagement is involved.”
Beyond the policy concerns are very real concerns for the safety of whistleblowers.
As part of a new campaign called “Keep your income clean”, TI’s local chapter, the Yemeni Team for Transparency and Integrity (YTTI), spread awareness about security sector corruption by speaking to locals about their experiences with bribery and extortion involving policemen and soldiers. One day during the campaign last autumn, policemen allegedly threatened YTTI members physically: One officer aimed his rifle at the volunteers, while his colleagues pushed around the activists and shouted at them as they protested in the streets of the capital, TI said at the time.
Earlier last year, in May, an unidentified gunman reportedly shot the group’s project coordinator after he delivered a public speech against corruption, injuring him seriously.
The absence of state whistleblower protection laws has further compounded the risks of exposing corruption. According to the US Department of State’s 2013 Human Rights report on Yemen, “NGOs reported many cases of individuals losing their jobs or suffering other harm after revealing instances of corruption.”
The report also stated that Yemen’s “Ministry of Social and Labor Affairs interfered with the licensing of some human rights-related organizations that were viewed with suspicion, including organizations focused on accountability and transitional justice. Civil society organizations and NGOs not focused on these issues experienced minimal restrictions on their activities.”
Impact of corruption on aid
For one tribal sheikh from Marib Province, east of Sana’a, the nepotism endemic in aid projects run by government ministries often counteracts the intended benefits.
He heads the local office of Dar Al Salam, a tribal conflict resolution and humanitarian aid organization, and would welcome the construction of a new hospital in his district, where there is only one hospital with a few doctors who can do minor operations.
But “staff are mostly hired on the basis of their relations to the local prominent sheikh, who allocates jobs as he pleases, without regard for qualified individuals who wish to apply to the positions,” he told IRIN. “Many of the employees either do not exist or do not show up to work. The latter collect their pay cheques without earning them, while the sheikh collects the pay cheques of the former ‘ghost workers’. By the time each employee takes his share of the budget provided by the Ministry of Health, there’s hardly anything left to buy medicine or maintain the facility.”
More than half of Yemen’s population - or 14.7 million people - are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. Millions of people do not know where their next meal is coming from; more than one million children under five are acutely malnourished, and some 13 million Yemenis do not have access to an improved water source or adequate sanitation. Another 8 million do not have access to health care.
Yet of the $706 million requested to respond to humanitarian needs in 2013, UN agencies and NGO partners received just over half that amount.
Yemen’s reputation for corruption is one of the driving factors limiting aid funding.
Before a major donor conference in 2006, Yemen received only US$13 per capita per year in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) compared to an average of $33 for other Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
As recently as 2013, Chatham House described Yemen as a “donor orphan”, saying the ODA it received was still “a fraction of that sent to three other similarly poor and high-risk conflict-affected countries, namely Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Challenges of reform
In 2012, the Friends of Yemen grouping of international actors seeking a stable political transition in Yemen pledged $7.9 billion in mostly humanitarian and development aid. But Yemen’s history of mismanagement of foreign aid and limited capacity to absorb large amounts of funding have slowed its disbursement.
In 2006, a forerunner to the Friends of Yemen in London pledged $4.7 billion in aid for Yemen, only about 10 percent of which had been disbursed by 2010 due to absorption and corruption obstacles.
These factors led donors to bypass the regular Yemeni system altogether this time around, creating instead parallel institutions capable of absorbing the $7.9 billion in a more transparent, effective and timely manner.
But this approach highlights the challenges of fighting corruption in a place like Yemen.
Bypassing domestic institutions today defers capacity-building exercises essential for the bodies to one day perform their intended functions independently.
A 2013 report by Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law concluded that one of the main problems affecting the disbursement of aid pledges was the creation of “parallel institutions as a mechanism to channel aid in Yemen, without addressing the real absorptive capacity constraints needed by the government in order to maximize aid effectiveness and promote better governance mechanisms in the country.”
Still, Yemen’s current absorptive and disbursement capacities can contribute to significant delays in delivering pledged resources to crisis situations - leaving donors in something of a Catch-22.
“Not only can such delays affect the security and well-being of targeted communities, they can also induce local authorities and businesses to find inappropriate ‘quick fixes’ and turn to corruption or the informal or criminal economy,” TI wrote in its report.
A 2011 study by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) aimed at reducing corruption in the delivery of aid found that current anti-corruption approaches are usually unsuccessful because they rely too much on internationally-driven “technical-legal” processes that lack widespread local consent. “No country can change without domestic collective action” and the role of the international community should be to support the representativeness and sustainability of those initiatives, it said.
In addition, “Most of the current anti-corruption strategies… focus on increasing legal constraints, which often fail because most interventions are localized in societies that lack the rule of law,” NORAD wrote.
In a line: There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach, the report said: Each society has its own dynamic that is best tackled indigenously through a customized strategy.
In the context of Yemen’s failing economy - oil revenues have been falling sharply - bribes are likely to continue to be a necessary adaptation to bleak economic conditions until the government is able to tend to policemen and other rank-and-file civil servants whose salaries barely meet subsistence levels.
“Petty corruption ensures the survival of low-ranking civil servants, even if some of their bureaucratic activities are in themselves questionable,” argues Philippe Le Billon, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, in Canada.
Progress on the horizon?
Still, some see progress on the horizon.
The UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, says he is optimistic about the prospects for the anti-corruption agenda.
After 10 months of reconciliation talks that wrapped up in January, delegates at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) “recognized that the country’s resources were pillaged by a handful of people and that’s why they came up with a number of conclusions that constitute a programme of recovery of these assets,” he told IRIN. “One of conclusions of the NDC is the setting up of a national committee to oversee implementation of these goals in practical terms… So no doubt with the end of the NDC there will be a focus on this set of issues related to corruption and asset recovery.”
The Good Governance Working Group responsible for developing a new framework to eradicate corruption recommended the establishment of whistleblower protection through the “issuance of a law to protect informants, witnesses and investigators in corruption cases.” A loftier goal aimed to eliminate the chief cause of petty graft or bribery through legal “reform of the wage and bonus structures for the State and private sector employees with the objective of improving their living standards and the meet [sic] the level of sufficiency to eliminate corruption.”
Implementation of these anti-corruption measures, of course, will be the challenging part. Al Basha, the Yemeni government spokesperson, said this is an increasing priority for the government.
In 2013, President Hadi fired and replaced many high-ranking officials that were involved in corruption; and the Central Organization for Control and Auditing (COCA) has prosecuted junior to mid-level officials and recovered money, he said.
“But overall everyone has been [so] obsessed with the security and political aspects that the economic and financial sectors have been - not neglected - but have been a second priority. But that will change this year.”
He said an asset recovery law in second draft at the Legal Affairs Ministry would assist the push for financial reform when approved.
Other mechanisms already exist, but suffer from a lack of effectiveness and transparency.
The independent Supreme National Authority for Combating Corruption (SNACC), for example, made up of government, civil society, and private sector representatives, was formed in 2007 to receive complaints and develop programmes to raise awareness about corruption.
In 2013, 100 corruption cases were referred to the Authority for prosecution, but by year end, no sentences had been pronounced.
A total of 25,621 public employee financial disclosure statements have been filed with the SNACC, with 686 noncompliance cases submitted to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for action,” the US State Department said in its 2013 Human Rights Report. “These declarations were largely unavailable to the public.”
According to the British ambassador to Yemen, Jane Marriot, the Mutual Accountability Framework which Yemen and supporting governments signed at the Riyadh Donor Conference in 2012 included the strengthening of SNACC.
In the meantime, long-established forms of graft persist with impunity.
“At the moment, Sana’a can’t solve the sheikh corruption problem,” the Marib tribal sheikh said. “Maybe in the future new leaders can be installed - those who don’t play a role now. They can inspire people to rebel against corrupt tribal leaders. But if the Yemeni government sticks to the same leaders, the situation will remain as it is.”
NB: IRIN has concealed the identity of most of those quoted in this article out of fear for their safety.