Interview with Ambassador J.F.L. Blankenberg”We are working towards a harmonised approach of supporting Yemen’s development objectives” [Archives:2004/797/Community]

December 9 2004

Q: Your Excellency, you have recently taken up your position in Sana'a. We understand that development co-operation is a major task of the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Yemen. Could you tell us about the size and the shape of the RNE's programme in Yemen?
A: Certainly. Yemen and The Netherlands enjoy a long-standing development co-operation relationship. In fact, last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary. We are currently focusing our support on the three sectors of education, health and water. Complementary to our investments in those sectors we also support activities in what we call 'good governance'. This includes activities in support of Civil Service Modernisation, gender equality, human rights, improving the environment for business development and democratisation.
In 2004, this Embassy itself will spend 22 million Euros in Yemen. From central budgets there are additional transfers for e.g. the NPT programmes in support of post-secondary education, Civil Service Modernisation and basic education (a grant in the framework of the global Fast Track Initiative).

Q: In the past Yemenis saw many projects all over the country that were funded by the Dutch government. You don't seem to be so visible anymore. What is the reason for that?
A: That is a very accurate observation. The shift that you notice is one that can be observed worldwide and is not limited to Dutch development co-operation only. In the past the most common way of giving development aid was to set up project implementation units, staffed partly by foreign nationals. They would often achieve good results in the short term, but the problem was that – for many reasons – when the project finished the results often proved unsustainable. Generally speaking, the overall impact of the interventions that we supported left much to be desired. As a result of many evaluations, a real shift has come about in the last decade. We can summarise this under the heading 'harmonisation'.

Q: What do you mean by this term 'harmonisation'?
A: The principle of harmonisation is that development assistance can only be truly effective if it supports a country's own poverty reduction policies and helps develop its capacity to implement those policies. This means that there should be a healthy dialogue between development partners and the recipient country about its poverty reduction strategy and the way the country uses its own resources to achieve the objectives. On the side of the donors we have realised that it's too much of a burden if we all come with our own missions, discussing policies and projects and using a lot of the much needed capacity to implement stand-alone projects. That is why we feel we need to work much more closely together, have a joint dialogue with government, pool our resources and thus reduce what we call the 'transaction costs' associated with aid. In the ideal situation where there is full agreement about the policies, the implementation mechanisms and the management of resources, donors give general budget support to a country.
In Yemen the conditions are not right yet to move very far in this direction. But we do feel that we need to set out a 'roadmap' on how to get there. For that reason we are organising jointly with the Ministry of Planning and International Co-operation a workshop on 12-13 December on this topic. We are hoping for a lively and result-oriented debate among government and donor partners.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about the three sectors in which you are working?
A: In all three sectors we are working towards a harmonised approach of supporting Yemen's development objectives. In terms of our investments in the water sector there is a strong focus on integrated water resource management, which is essential in view of Yemen's scarcity of water. In the health sector our investments concentrate on reproductive health and in education we support mostly basic education. In all sectors we face similar challenges, which is why we try to work with Yemen on ways to improve public sector performance and the management of public finances, both within the sectors and in separate programmes. Decentralisation is also an important theme that has a bearing on all of these sectors.

Q: How do you rate the performance of the Yemeni government in terms of progress in essential reforms? Would you withhold support if it was unsatisfactory?
A: Progress in essential reforms seems to us to be rather uneven. In some areas real progress is made, in others very little. Although there is still a long way to go, the Government has made progress in controlling the size of the civil service. An area where far too little progress has been made is the diversification of the economy. Yemen urgently needs to develop other sources of income and reduce its heavy reliance on the income from oil. We are of course not blind to the huge obstacles the Yemeni Government is facing in the implementation of reforms: institutional weakness and limited capacity, lack of resources, the need to make very difficult political decisions.
Wherease some reforms may seem quite feasible in the immediate future, others will require a long time to bear fruit, such as reform of the judiciary and the civil service. In such areas, we do not expect miracles overnight. The important thing, from our point of view, is that a beginning of reforms is made and that the political will to change things is demonstrated. Withholding support is hardly constructive and would only be an option if we felt that the basic will to reform was lacking.
Coming back to education: we rate the reforms in this sector as encouraging. Although the full effects of all these efforts will not be felt until years from now, we see a manifest political will to create fundamental improvements. There are clear strategies and objectives in place and the Government is giving the sector its full attention. We hope this good example will be followed in other areas.