Dr. Hany El-BanaYemen has great potential, so why has it reached this poor state? [Archives:2006/973/Reportage]

August 17 2006
Dr. Hany El-Bana (right) talking to the Managing Editor of Yemen Times.
Dr. Hany El-Bana (right) talking to the Managing Editor of Yemen Times.
Interview by: Hamdan Dammag
[email protected]

International relief organization Islamic Relief (IR) opened its Sana'a office in 2005 and its activities have been present ever since. IR was one of the first relief organizations to provide help and support during the Al-Dhafeer village crisis where a rockslide killed more than 65 people and destroyed 16 houses.

During the recent events in Lebanon, IR reportedly was the only British aid agency that ventured south of Beirut and one of the few international agencies delivering food and relief items in Qana, Tyre, Sidon and other heavily bombarded areas.

During a short visit to Yemen, IR founder Dr. Hany El-Bana spoke about IR and its work in the following exclusive interview. He has a strong viewpoint against qat, as well as a future plan to help farmers stop growing it.

Can you tell us about Islamic Relief?

Headquartered in Birmingham, England, Islamic Relief (IR) is an international relief and development charity working in 35 countries. It was founded in 1984 to serve those in need on the African Horn following the 1982 famine. IR has good partnerships with several Islamic and non-Islamic governments, as well as international organizations and donors like the European Union, the United Nations, Oxfam and the Red Cross.

It is IR's policy to work in various conflict regions like Iraq, Darfur, Chechnya, Kashmir and Palestine.

How did you come up with the idea for IR and were there difficulties?

The idea began when I visited Sudan in Dec. 1982 and saw the devastating situation of residents there following the famine. When I returned to Cairo, I showed my friends some photos I obtained from several charities there and proposed the idea of donating some money to these charities. Some of my relatives began donating small amounts and I still remember a child who donated 20 Egyptian cents.

I managed to collect approximately 1,500 Egyptian pounds, which I took back with me to the UK where I lived. Once in the UK, I again proposed the idea to many people. A friend in Birmingham, who was doing his master's at that time, liked the idea and started helping me.

Our work began at Friday prayers in Islamic community mosques in Eston and Birmingham. We managed to collect some money, which allowed us to open a bank account. We then went out to the streets too.

All of our paperwork was prepared at home on a typewriter. We began distributing leaflets at mosques and places where there were Muslim communities. At that time, we had no office of our own, so we hung a donation box on a Birmingham mosque wall and opened it weekly.

A year later, we managed to rent a small office with a telephone line and a fax machine. We were so happy and it felt like we had the biggest office in the world.

At that time, did you receive any aid from the British government?

No, we began receiving aid in 1993. We depended on donations because this type of work wasn't common in mosques at that time. We sometimes were prohibited from distributing leaflets or even forced to leave where we were operating. However, people afterward began appreciating our efforts and becoming used to it.

I can say that in 1985, I was the first person in the UK to stand on the street asking for donations. Nowadays, it's a very common phenomenon and there are thousands of beggars.

Why did you choose Yemen for one of your offices?

Well, the question actually should be why were we so late in opening an office in Yemen? Yemen is an important member of the IR family for several reasons, the most important of which are its geographical location and its human resources. In this regard, I'd like to say that Yemen has the capability of producing effective human resources if they receive efficient training. This is in addition to Yemen's brilliant history in the east and west.

Why has Yemen reached this poor state when it's a country rich in resources, labor and culture?

Furthermore, Yemen has the future potential of becoming one of the most important countries playing a major role in supporting relief work around the world.

You have a strong viewpoint against qat. Can you tell us about it?

Yes, it's true. I'm not a religious scholar to prohibit qat, but I can talk about it from a social point of view. I can tell you that chewing qat is a serious waste of time. Whatever has been said about qat, I can tell you that we can't build a strong economy in any country based on wasting time while gaining fast profit from marketing and consuming qat. Much agricultural land has been ruined by growing qat instead of other crops that could be exported. The economic process of selling qat is a vicious cycle benefiting only a small community in society. I'm just wondering if half a man's income goes to buying qat, how on earth can he support his family?

Nevertheless, I think people still aren't paying enough attention to the importance of the time-wasting factor when they talk about qat. How many hours are spent working compared to those spent chewing qat?

I briefly visited the Great Mosque in the Old City of Sana'a one Friday and I was so impressed by the architecture of the mosque and the old city. Approximately 500 men were gathered to pray, but I didn't understand why because it was still noon. My companions then told me the men were performing the afternoon prayers so they wouldn't miss afternoon qat sessions.

Qat consumes 50 to 60 percent of people's time in Yemen and this is in addition to its other negatives consequences, including medical ones. It costs the government a lot of money to treat these consequences, so maybe it's better to spend money on projects aiming to fight growing and chewing qat.

Can IR help this problem?

Yes, we're trying to think of a way to limit qat usage. We're trying to provide alternatives by convincing a group of farmers to replace qat with other crops or even raise animals. It will be something like a pilot study, so if we succeed in one area, the government may try to implement it in others.

The idea simply is to create a small community of farmers who've decided not to grow qat. This might consist of 20 to 30 families, each of which will receive a cow and 20 sheep to invest. They also will receive help taking their product to market and those doing well will be encouraged with more money and income.

Raising awareness about this project also is important. Its progress will be checked annually for the first 10 years and an analysis conducted of improvement in these families' incomes compared to the income they would've gained if they'd grown qat. If successful, the government could use this idea as a national campaign to eliminate dependence upon qat.

I think the government should deal with qat similar to cigarettes. That is, tobacco companies are forced to display warnings on their products and qat must be dealt with in the same manner. Again, I'd like to say that the time spent chewing qat should be spent on development.

You held a disaster management training course in Sana'a earlier this year. Were the outcomes as expected?

Yes, there were several positive outcomes of the conference, which was successful. The outcomes benefited both governmental and non-governmental organizations that participated in the conference, whether from Yemen or other countries. We had participants from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt.

The Yemeni side responded positively, especially those from civil defence and it was clear to us that Yemen's government needed such a training course. Yemen's Minister of Interior reflected this need in his speech at the opening ceremony, wherein he pointed out the absence of clear house addresses and streets names in the capital, a problem making civil defence work, like the fire brigade, very difficult.

Does the word “Islamic” have any negative consequences upon your efforts or relations with other international organizations?

It is a problem, and at the same time, it isn't. Unfortunately, people nowadays are suspicious of anything Islamic. We're part of Islamic activities, so people must get used to the name Islamic Relief and the work we do. This is important so that any future relief work that's Islamic and has an Islamic name will be welcomed.

You signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Considering the current international mode in relation to Islamic activities, do you have difficulties dealing with international organizations?

No, not at all. We have good relations with the U.N. and several international organizations. IR has been working with the IOM to deliver essential relief items to earthquake-affected communities in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The new agreement formally allows each organization to request the other's cooperation during relief operations in order not to duplicate efforts and to maximize effectiveness in helping vulnerable populations.

On May 9, one of your staff members, Ayaz Ali, was arrested by Israeli security services and held three weeks at Israel's top security Ashkelon Prison. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, he was released without charge and has been deported from Israel indefinitely. We still don't know why he was arrested.

Are you following up the case?

Yes, the Israeli prime minister's office made a statement accusing IR of providing “support and assistance to Hamas's infrastructure.” This statement is irresponsible and unacceptable. We've replied to them and the case is ongoing.

Do you think this is part of Israel's policy against Hamas?

We deal with all governments and have nothing to do with ideologies. We've worked with Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq, the Chechnyan government and the government in southern Sudan. We deal with political decision makers in the countries in which we work, obtaining their permission to operate in the country and informing them about our activities. If they have different agendas, that's their business. So, we work with all governments.

Including the Israeli government?

We deal with all official governments worldwide.