Al-Arhabi takes on many tasks for social development [Archives:2004/739/Community]

May 20 2004

Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

Abdulkarim Al-Arhabi has been given a tremendous amount of responsibility and number of challenges. When the Social Fund for Development was established in Yemen in 1996, Al-Arhabi was appointed the Managing Director of the organization. Two years ago, he was also appointed as the Yemeni Minister for Social Affairs and Labor.
Al-Arhabi oversees numerous aspects of social development in Yemen. Social projects cover many areas that range from poverty, basic services and water supply to improving the lives of children, women and workers.
Yemen Times reporter Peter Willems spoke with Al-Arhabi about the progress of social projects and what should be expected in the near future.

Q:What is the Social Fund for Development focusing on these days?
A: We have three main programs in the Social Fund. The first and largest program is community development. It has small, labor intensive projects in the area of basic services dealing with primary health care, basic education, water supply projects, roads, the environment and we have gone into cultural heritage as well.
The second main program is small and micro enterprise development. We have lending programs in the area of microfinance.
The third main program is capacity building: capacity building of partners, NGOs, communities, government institutions, and capacity building of individuals, consultants and small contractors.
The first phase was scheduled for five years, but we managed to reach our targets in three years. We started the second phase by doubling the first phase. It was also supposed to go on for five years but managed to do it in less than three years. We are starting the third phase that will be carried out between 2004 and 2008. During the third phase, we will continue to do the same thing, more or less, to increase access to basic services around the country but also to focus more on capacity building by helping the government agencies develop systems, policies, procedures, and train them to do their jobs.

Q: Could you give more details on capacity building?
A: Through the years we recognized that there was a huge need for capacity building. For example, there was a mushrooming of NGOs in the country, but many didn't have the capacity, for instance, not knowing how to do accounting, manage an activity and implement, manage, or market a project. We are helping them by providing training and developing systems and putting systems in place. We make sure to coach them until they really have a system in place and the system is functioning.
We also help communities to mobilize themselves. When we go to an area in need of some assistance, we talk to the people, try to help them to prioritize their needs and mobilize themselves around the project. That way, they participate in the implementation and take on the responsibility of maintenance and operating the service later on. That's what we have been doing in communities with NGOs.
We realized that government agencies are also in a huge need of capacity building. So we are doing more of that as well.

Q: Yemeni reform programs focus a lot on developing education. How has the Social Fund been involved in education?
A: We are involved in basic education and have constructed a lot of schools. We have built over 7000 classrooms all over the country since we started operations in 1998. We have been involved not only on the construction side but also on the software side, like systems, training skills, and so forth.
We also found in urban areas that there was a huge overcrowding of classrooms. Sometimes there are over 100 students in one classroom. We developed a program to reduce the crowded classrooms by expanding schools in urban areas, and we also expanded in smaller cities. The problem has been reduced, but it continues because of population growth and newcomers.

Q: What has the Social Fund been doing to try and get more girls to enroll in schools?
A: We put an emphasis on the education of girls to increase enrollment. We try to build schools and provide enough space. We found that once there are proper schools, enrollment for girls automatically goes up. It has been successful when there is a schedule for boys to go to class in the morning and girls in the afternoon or where there are special classrooms for girls. We also found that it is crucial to have female teachers. If there are female teachers, more girls enroll. We work closely with the Ministry of Education and try to recruit female teachers. It is not easy because the country is huge, is scattered and resources are limited.

Q: Has the Social Fund been successful working on the supply of water in rural areas?
A: We shifted our strategy from a mechanized water supply system to water harvesting. This is to try and harvest some of the rain water to increase the availability of water in communities. Ground water is depleting, there is not sufficient water in many areas and mechanized systems are expensive and not sustainable. Water harvesting includes traditional small cisterns on top of mountains that collect water. We are helping people to expand cisterns and build dams and reservoirs in many areas. This program has worked very well and we will continue on this.
We have also been working on roads. We started on village access roads. There are scattered villages that have virtually no access to main roads, so they do not have access to the markets. We developed a concept of constructing feeder roads to provide isolated villages with access to markets. This helps to alleviate poverty because it enables farmers to market their products, and it lowers the cost of commodities for the people in the villages when transportation is easier and cheaper. Therefore, the people can market their products, the commodities they need are cheaper and it is faster and cheaper to get to the closest health facilities.

Q: What has the Social Fund focused on to help develop healthcare?
A: In the beginning we built health units, but we found that this was not the right way of doing it. Setting up health units included the cooperation of the Ministry of Health to provide the staff, the budget and so on. But it did not materialize. We also found that the problem is more complex and deeper. It has to do with the supply of paramedical staff and demand. Even if the Ministry appoints a few people in a particular village, after some time they move to urban areas because there is demand in urban areas, they can earn more money and life is better for them. So, it is not building structures for medical care but providing the supply of paramedical staff. There is no benefit without the staff. It is the service and the delivery of the service that counts.
We tried to increase the supply of the paramedical staff. We helped the health institutes to expand their capacity. We built around ten health institutes to train paramedical staff and supported the existing health institutes by providing them with equipment and training. We even provided scholarships for trainees. Instead of going to a particular area and building a building for a health unit and trying and struggling to make it function, we got some people from the area and trained them. Some will go back and work there or some will move to an urban area. But it is the best strategy to try and get people from those underserved areas and train them. We believe that a large percentage of those people will go back to their areas after they graduate.

Q: Has the Social Fund's microfinance program to help small businesses done well?
A: Microfinance has been a very difficult area. It is a kind of banking operation. We provide credit all over the country ourselves. We picked some NGOs and cooperatives for lending programs. However, we found that NGOs and cooperatives didn't have the capacity. We had to train them to implement the program and it was a big challenge. It included recruitment, training and introducing systems which were complex and difficult.
There were also difficulties on the market side. In Yemen we have not had the tradition of money lenders. People used to go to relatives or friends and borrow without interest. So we had to develop the market ourselves and make a breakthrough in our culture.
We have learned from our experience. We had a lot of problems when we first started. The first problem we had was interest. We were forced to apply Islamic banking in microfinance. Islamic banking is used in large-scale operations but not in microfinance. This made it difficult, but we developed operations based on Islamic banking.
Over time we learned a lot from successes and failures or mistakes. What we learned from our experience we applied in the new programs to avoid the problems we had earlier. Now it is bearing fruit. The new programs are doing very well. We have very high repayment, nearly 100% repayment. We are strong believers in microfinance and the impact of microfinance on the living conditions of the people. So we have invested a lot of energy and tried everything. We now have 14 programs in many different areas around the country.

Q: The new National Strategy for Children and Youth is being put together to help working children. Do you believe it will be effective?
A: The Ministry is involved and the Social Fund is heavily involved as well. I am personally committed to it because I believe it is an important program to really understand what the problems are, their magnitude and to see how to deal with different problems. There are already several initiatives, like the child labor project with ILO funded by the United States which is a pilot project. We have several initiatives to deal with children under difficult circumstances, like children in conflict with the law. We progressed very well in the development of juvenile justice. There are courts for children in conflict with the law, and we moved juveniles from prisons to care centers. Most of the children have been moved to the care centers, and we have an ambitious program to build care centers all over the country.
At the same time, we have other initiatives, like providing Safe Children Centers for street children. So we are doing a lot for children, but most of the work is done by the Social Fund because the Social Fund has the resources and flexibility.
The National Strategy will provide the country with a vision, and we will try to disseminate the strategy and get all the parties to work together. We must have a multi-sector approach, including the Ministries of Health, Justice, Social Affairs, Education, the Interior, and so on. We are doing a lot to prepare for this. The strategy will help us know what the problems and challenges are, what are the right ways to deal with them, what are the right policies. We will develop an action plan, and everybody will be involved.
The most important aspect of the strategy is that it is done with full participation. It's not just researchers coming here, observing things and putting it on paper. We have to listen to the children. There will be focus group discussions all over the country with different age groups and try to listen to them, how they see their problems, how they see their challenges, what are their ambitions and what are their priorities. It's not enough to have experts analyze things and put together a strategy. Those times are over. We have to listen to the target groups, to the children in different parts of the country. We have to do it the right way this time.

Q: Even though Yemen is working on basic education and the future of working children, some wonder what will happen in the long run since Yemen's economy is having problems growing and there may not be jobs available for the youth. What do you think is the solution?
A: The relevance of the education system is very important, including the level of education and vocational training. In order to know the relevance, you need to research market demand to have education and vocational training systems respond to market needs. At the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor we are trying to develop the labor market. We had a labor force study to know the supply of labor, and we needed to do a survey on the market demands. The labor market demand survey was recently carried out and the results are being finalized. It is very important. The results will be given to the people involved in education and vocational education so they know what the market demand is. We will try to create momentum around the country to meet the market needs. Young people now go blindly into secondary education and university studies, and then discover after they finish their studies that there is no demand for their skills. The young people will be given orientation to guide them.