Dr. Qais G. Noman: “Improving management systems should aim at improving productivity and not merely implementing directives.” [Archives:1998/17/Interview]

April 27 1998

Dr. Qais Ghanim Noman has been working for the UN development program for 28 years. He started his career in New York with the office of technical cooperation then transferred to the UNDP, where he served in various capacities in the African and Arab Bureau. He served in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Benin, Swaziland, and Lesotho. He was resident representative and coordinator of the UN system operational activities, director of the UN Information Center, and representative of UNFPA and UNFP. Upon his leaving Lesotho, he served as chief of the regional programs and later chief of the national country programs which include Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf States.
Dr. Noman was born in Aden in 1942, and was educated in Aden and in Egypt in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at the University of Cairo (’62-’64). He completed his degree at Wabash College, Indiana, USA. Later, he received a masters degree in international relations from the University of Rhode Island and a masters degree in public relations and a Ph.D. in development administration from New York University .
Dr. Noman is a well-known poet, writer and journalist, and taught in Aden school prior to his going to the US in 1966.
He is currently an international consultant carrying out assignments for several UN agencies associated with the Change Institute in New Jersey – a group of consultants and former UN staff members, who provide consultancy services in management and sustainable human development issues, administrative and institutional reform and other related subjects.
He is currently visiting Yemen to participate in the second economic conference organized by Al-Thawabit Qaurterly.
Dr. Salah Haddash, Yemen Times Managing Editor, talked to Mr. Noman about important various issues.
Q: What role did you have in the 2nd economic conference?
A: I was kindly invited by Dr. Al-Bishari to participate in the conference and chair the session which dealt with structural adjustment in aid flows. It also covered the role of the media in the economic reform process and population issues and trends. I was also asked to be a commentator on 4 papers presented in the session on investment and privatization.
The conference was well organized and a great success. The issues with which the conference dealt were pertinent to the reform process and other important issues in the country.
Q: How do you see the progress in economic reform, human resource development, and other fields of reform?
A: The progress in the financial sector and the overall micro-economic policies has been impressive, according to the assessment of international financial institutions such as the World Bank as well as the EU and other UN agencies. This is despite some small disparities in the figures.
We should note, however, that the period in question is rather short and comes on the heels of a period of political uncertainty. I am particularly impressed by the stabilization at the micro-economic level and liberalization of trade policies, although there are no trade strategies and there are restrictions on some imports.
Inflation has been curbed to 6.3% from the high rate of 71% in three years. Interests rates have become more in line at a realistic 11%, instead of 26% in 1994. The exchange rate has been generally stabilized.
All these factors have improved the balance of payments, resulting in an average growth of GNP, excluding the oil sector, of 5.5%.
The government through the pursuit of transparent policies in the political arena and support of the multi-party system, elections, free press, and improving the human rights record has succeeded in reducing foreign debt.
Q: Do you think that the reform program is progressing as it should be?
A: I’d like to see simultaneous implementation of the administrative reform along with the economic and financial reform. Trained and committed manpower and the productive reform system institutions will be charged with implementing the structural changes in the economic, financial, and administrative areas. The administrative reform should be accelerated, and not lag behind.
Also the social impact of the reform should be part and parcel of the structural changes, and not be a consequence of it. Improving management systems should aim at improving productivity and not merely implementing directives. The biggest issue which the government must face is that the population growth.
Q: How large a burden does the rapid increase in population put on the development plans?
A: Half of the population in Yemen is very young, about 49% of Yemen’s estimated 16 million inhabitants are under the age of 15. These people have a lot of demands and aspirations on the economic pie.
Yemen depends on very few resources, mainly oil and its derivatives. Oil is a very unstable and unendurable commodity. With the fluctuation of prices, the overall revenue available to the government for development could be seriously strained.
One of the consequences of high population growth in terms of growing poverty is producing a non-productive manpower. This also weakens the family structure and values, creating a fertile ground for the pursuit of criminal activities. Thus far this social ill is not rampant, but if these problems continue and are not addressed on urgent basis, there will be more problems to tackle with less resources and weaker commitment.
Q: So how do you see the situation vis-a-vis the country’s strained resources?
A: The lack of resources for sustaining human development may worsen and could lead to further deepening of poverty and disparities between the rich and the poor. At the same time there are stagnant and declining sectors as a result of some practices. About 30% of the agricultural land is now devoted to growing qat, which is unproductive and has no nutritional value.
As a result, the government has written off that 30% of the land, as qat is grown throughout the year and the land cannot be used for the other rotating crops. The government imports or assists the importation of cereals in increasing amounts, and this will grow unless the encroachment on the land and water is halted.
Q: What other obstacles hinder the reform program?
A: The other problem is joblessness. The appropriate education and jobs have to be found for young people. Universities now are full of students who are in the majority of cases only finding shelter for four years. The education level on the whole is pathetic, unemployment will continue to grow, and poverty will deepen unless the private sector creates new jobs.
Q: What about progress in the political arena?
A: On the political scene, fortunately the trend towards democratization, multi-party system, decentralization and freedom of the press is being stabilized and is bearing fruits. Also a new political culture is being formed and will hopefully be sustained.
However, the security system, the judicial system, the banking system, customs and some other areas which are essential for attracting foreign investment must be reformed as a priority.
Q: What should be done to efficiently implement the proposed development programs?
A: It is very important to understand the capacity of the government to implement the various development programs, which are financed nationally or internationally. There is an overall agreement that coordination in the Ministry of Planning and Development and the coordination of foreign aid in the Ministry of Finance, which is in charge of the national budget, is at best weak.
On the other hand, some donors who initiate projects in collaboration with sectoral ministries and civil society institutions are bypassing the Ministry of Planning and Development. They present projects as fait accompli. The Ministry of Planning, in charge of approving requests, sometimes concedes projects outside the development plan, if the donor is willing to support a particular project or program.
The process of signature and ratification of loans needs to be rationalized and synchronized at present. Loans are signed by the Ministry of Planning and the ratification process is by the Council of Representatives.
Serious problems arise when there are inordinate delays. As soon as loans are signed there is what is known as a stand-by commitment fee which starts accumulating from the date of signature. If there are delays in ratification, these charges accumulate, and are applied to the overall loan. So we end up with a reduced loan depriving other sectors of the economy from valuable resources. Endless delays had been recorded in the clearance of experts by sectoral ministries and the Ministry of Planning and clearance of goods and equipment by the customs. The administrative bottlenecks need to be removed.
Q: What solutions do you suggest?
A: A long-term resource mobilization plan is needed to cover 10-20 years, based on in-depth sectoral studies. The plan will be to attract investors and donors to Yemen’s needs, and not be used as gaps in the budget. Also, projects and programs that are directly referred by the donors should not be accepted.
As there is no investment plan, we should proceed with this matter along with improving a trade plan and strategy. The government must make a correlation between the aid that it receives and the sectors it advocates for uplifting such as the social sector and the health and education sectors.
The government and donor countries can seriously address poverty and its consequences by aligning the aid towards the social sector and the vulnerable segments of society. About 51% of the resources go to the economic reform, according 1996 figures, which is fine. But the social sector and the impact of the reform need to be addressed now.
Q: Local administration is seen by many as the remedy for many ills. What do you think of that?
A: Some people are apprehensive about decentralization. Decentralization encompasses the free participation in the development process and the empowerment and enhancement of transparency and accountability. Naturally, it should aim also at alleviating and eventually eliminating the administrative, legal and financial bottlenecks. Remote management and decisions do not work. It wastes resources and time and creates friction and disenchantment. It also creates opportunities for corruption, abuse of power and anarchy.
The government is now considering the issues of local authority and decentralization. It would be prudent to think of elections as a key to the decentralization process. Governors should be elected directly by the people and local government bodies as well. They should be charged with raising and regulating resources such as taxes, expenditures, local government services, fees, etc. They must also be accountable to the people. Decentralization lessens burdens on the central government and empowers the local people to be active share holders in their district.