Improving efficiency in Yemen: Is Saleh’s call enough? [Archives:2006/953/Business & Economy]

June 8 2006

By: Mahyoub Al-Kamali
and Raidan Al-Saqqaf

A recent presidential appeal that called on the Yemeni people to become more productive has resulted in varied reactions and impressions from its intended target, while opposition parties have determined that the appeal lacked candor. Moreover, the businesses dependent on the local labor market have concluded that Yemeni society suffers under a set of barriers which limit its productivity.

Surveying opinions on the subject, the Yemen Times found that opposition figures in political parties believe that nothing is impossible provided a genuine political will for change exists and that the Yemeni leadership is just in the utilization of national resources towards infrastructure development in all governorates while focusing on populous and impoverished areas.

Sources in opposition parties said enhanced efficiency is only possible if corruption is eradicated so that one's work becomes the sources of one's wealth and power and not the current situation where nepotism and cronyism are the rule of the day. They added that any single-handed move towards increased productivity is unachievable in the meantime, in spite of the fact that the Yemeni people are hardworking, skilled, and talented as the current political context discourages honest, hardworking people to prosper without having to get their hands dirty in corrupt activities.

Having said that, these sources pinpointed several obstacles to increased productivity, of which the primary hurdle is the non-existence of a national plan to invest in human capital: vocational training is not widespread enough to make a difference; and earnings from national resources are earmarked for projects that largely fail to develop the country. Accordingly, “Such projects help the country's development in minimal ways and result in increased unemployment and migration from rural to urban areas. Such is the direct result of mismanagement of resources and governance by telepathy, believing in strategies that are distant from the current and future needs of the country”, opposition figures demurred.

Opinions of the average working man were much the same. Abdu Saleh, a plumber by trade, said that any such speech on productivity is nothing but a mockery of the working man. “We spend up to 12 hours working each day, while those who speak of productivity rest in their ivory towers,” said Saleh. He added that “They specialize in wasting public funds on projects irrelevant to the working man, using their corrupt talents in making our livelihoods even more complicated, and frustrating.” Saleh's assistant plumper noted that “Regardless of how hard you work or how much you save, at the end of the day you are broke and in debt, prices rise and everything is more expensive.”

“I'm a professional in what I do, however, I was unable to get a job with the Department of Water and Sanitation in spite of my qualifications because the recruitment process with this government agency is flawed, based on private relationships and mediation, not merit and qualification. You see so many fellow professionals unemployed; meanwhile amateurs get the good jobs.”

Radhya Ahmed, a textile worker, said that “The issue is about transparency. If we are to become more productive, we have to see and touch the results of our work, and with that our productivity habits would be reformed, since the person who works hard is valued and merited while those who do lousy jobs are derided. If I work harder than my peers I will not be recognized, and therefore I have no reason to exert any additional efforts.” She mentioned that many her coworkers feel likewise.

Intellectuals and academics suggested that with corruption rife, and public and private sector organizations largely dysfunctional, efficiency has become an alien concept in Yemen. Several people interviewed suggested that change can be driven by the 'spill-over effect'. For example, by attracting investors throughout industry who can introduce sophisticated management systems and quality control standards, higher levels of efficiency could be realized. Such a method would not only reward efficiency but will also make it a habit. However, most investors in Yemen are discouraged by the many legal and extra-legal obstacles to investment as well as by the mindset of the Yemeni labor in general, which has not operated in a work environment that rewards efficiency.

Although Yemen has a considerable pool of skilled labor, efficiency is a farfetched idea in the short run and will only be realized at very few organizations. Yemen requires a serious cultural change sparked by the willpower of a frank leadership dedicated to increasing efficiency starting at the governmental level. Such action in the public sphere would spill-over into Yemeni society.