Decentralization of governance in Yemen [Archives:2008/1209/Reportage]

November 20 2008

By: Khaled Fattah
Doctoral Candidate
University of St Andrews-UK

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the stage of international donors has been decorated with numerous banners under whose slogans countries in the developing world should march to good governance. One of these banners highlights that decentralization of governance leads to effectiveness, efficiency, accountability, transparency and responsiveness of local governments. Another big banner emphasizes that decentralization brings officials closer to the people, empowers citizens and creates a larger space for public participation. With united Yemen in mind, how true and applicable are these slogans?

Before jumping to answers and conclusions, let us first of all recognize the following important facts. First, decentralization of governance is not an event, but rather a long term, multidimensional and cross-cutting process that is dominated by the views of post industrial capitalist societies. Second, there is no single model of decentralization that is optimal for all countries. Third, decentralization and centralization are not 'either- or' conditions. Finally, when we talk about the vital role of local government in the decentralization process we should avoid limiting the discussion to the conventional administrative bodies such as municipalities and districts. An equal attention must be paid to social units such as the family, school, university, and, in the case of Yemen, the tribe. These units are major suppliers of perceptions regarding important decentralization-related values such as delegation, empowerment and participatory decision making. Despite the criticism over the motives and the textbook approach of some international donors operating in Yemen, let us admit that it is foolish to dismiss the repeated calls of such donors for the ineffective and corruption-infested state agencies in Yemen to start marching towards all the great values associated with good governance. There is no argument here about the merits of, for example, bridging the wide gap between Sana'a-based governmental bodies and the millions of people residing in the 38284 villages of Yemen. For these millions and others residing in the hundreds of districts outside Sana'a, the bureaucrats and politicians who run the affairs of the central government are too far away from the daily experiences of individuals and their families, and too far away from the needs and problems of local communities.

Politicians and bureaucrats, on the other hand, often blame Yemen's topographic destiny as the main obstacle in bridging the central-local gap. They argue that the lack of physical communication, which is due to lack of resources and the scattering of the population in rigid and inaccessible mountainous areas, is at the heart of the centralization/decentralization problem. In my view, however, it is not the geographic distance that should be blamed. Rather, the psychological distance of central government officials from the citizens they are supposed to govern. Most of the central government's policies and activities at the local level are seasonal and driven by short-term political interests that are developed within the context of concentrating power and maintaining the privileges of the ruling party. In addition, such imposed activities in the form of, for example, infrastructural projects are presented, when delivered, as gifts from the central government not as basic rights of local population.

Unfortunately, the existing dilemma of local governance in Yemen will get worse as long as the policies of central government are not driven by demand from local citizens. For planning and implementing state activities at local levels, it is essential for Sana'a-based decision makers to realize that failure at the local level of governance can pose a serious threat not only to government power but also to state legitimacy. In the minds of the people of Yemen, whether they live along coastal plains or on highland plateaus, the images of the political system are shaped by the degree of responsiveness of local governments. When civil servants in a governorate, municipality, district or sub-district can not solve simple problems such as doctors' absence from the local clinic or teachers' absence from the local school, people will defiantly question the ability of the central government to address the much larger and more complex problems related to national economy, security and politics.