Mr. Mahmood Ayub, WB director, to YT: In Yemen as in many other countries we have tried to build trust and cooperation between NGOs and governments tend to want to regulate them too closely. [Archives:2001/04/Interview]

January 22 2001

Mr. Mahmood A. Ayub, Pakistani national, is the WB new director of the Regional Office located in Cairo for Yemen, Egypt and Djibouti. Completing his Ph.D, he immediately joined the WB. He held many positions including Senior Industrial Economist working extensively on Indonesia, Costa Rica and Brazil, Division Chief of the End User Support Division in the Banks information technology services department, Division Chief of Macroeconomics Division in the Middle East and North Africa region, Regions Senior Operations Advisor of banks Africa Region and then as Country Director for Cape Verde, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. On September 1, 2000 he took over as the Director of the WB office in Cairo, Egypt. He speaks six languages and has published widely on economic development issues. He came to Yemen on a short visit to meet with the authorities and get first hand knowledge of Yemen. Yemen Times met with him and filed the following interview:
Q: What are the main issues that you discussed with the government officials?
A: Since this was my first visit to Yemen as Director, the objective was to listen to the Government officials, representatives of the Yemen civil society and other development partners on the successes and challenges of Yemen. I assured the Prime Minister and his team of my full commitment to build further on the already excellent relationship between Yemen and the World Bank. And we discussed some specific operational issues.
Q: What are the projects that you visited during your stay in Yemen?
A: Because the visit was short, I only had an opportunity to visit some Public Works and Social Development Fund projects near Sanaa. Since I will be coming to Sanaa quite often, I plan to make as many field trips as possible to get a real picture of our operations in Yemen, and to know this fascinating country better.
Q: What is the role of the World Bank in terms of alleviating poverty? How do you assess the Yemeni government policy in this regard?
A: The World Banks mission is the alleviation of poverty. Poverty in a world of plenty is an unacceptable reality, and World Bank staff are genuinely committed to fight poverty with passion and with professionalism. To fight it with the heart and with the mind. We have come to realize in our daily work that successful development is shared development. It is intolerable that in this age of great wealth and technological development, deep poverty persists. More than a billion people still live on less than a dollar a day, and almost three billion live on less than two dollars a day. Millions, especially children, go to bed hungry every night. So the Banks role is to work through projects, programs, analytical work and close coordination with all development partners to help alleviate poverty around the world.
The Yemeni government has been working towards the same antipoverty goals as the Bank. When we assess its policies in this regard, we have to keep two main ideas in mind. First, we have to look at the bigger picture of the governments economic development efforts, not only specific items targeted at the poor. We want growth that is pro-poor, not simply charitable redistribution. In this sense, the government has been moving steadily for the last five years to put in place policies that will help Yemen grow, and help the poor share in that growth. For example, while it is moving towards privatization to encourage greater job-creating private investment in Yemen, it is also expanding both basic education and technical training to give workers the skills that new enterprises demand. And the new Local Authorities Law will stimulate local enthusiasm and commitment to solve local problems. The Social Fund for Development fits right into that new environment, with micro-credit for the poor, support for local schools and health clinics, etc. At the same time, the government is trying to improve the direct safety net programs to help the most vulnerable groups. So we think the policies overall are quite good. The second main idea to remember, however, is that the government is trying to move Yemen up from its current place among the poorest countries in the world – and the constraints are enormous. So when things dont go as fast as we all would like, our first priority is to go beyond analyzing the problem, and roll up our sleeves and get to work with our Yemeni partners to solve it.
Q: Many are the economic side-effects resulted from implementing the economic reform programs. Is there a specific vision to alleviate these effects? How does the WB assess the social security network and the funds that are made to tackle some of the negative consequences of these reforms?
A: First I would like to comment on the side effects of the economic reform program, and then speak about the programs to handle vulnerable groups.
I want to dispel the myth that price increases, unemployment, and other complaints all have their roots in economic reforms. The opposite is true: without the main economic reforms that have stabilized the economy in the last five years, Yemen would have suffered continued hyperinflation, international credit (and willingness to forgive debts) would have dried up, business would have come to a standstill and laid off workers, and only the powerful could have prospered. Instead, the reforms have stabilized the economy and put it on a more sustainable footing, while protecting the most vulnerable citizens.
This leads into the second part of your question, about the social security network. The goal is to make sure that all those who are vulnerable to the adjustments are protected. This safety net has two main parts: a system for public employees – in privatized public enterprises or the civil service – who may lose their jobs because of privatization or size adjustments, and a system for everyone else. The public employee system will ensure that no one needs to leave the service without a generous package of support.
The private sector safety net is more diverse; it has three main cash transfer programs and three work-related programs. The largest cash transfer program is the Social Welfare Fund (SWF), which has grown dramatically since 1997, under a program agreed with the IMF. Last year it provided payments of almost YR7.7 billion, reaching 450,000 cases (an estimated 3 million people, or about 70 percent of the poor). These figures probably overestimate its impact on the poor, since its geographic coverage does not match the distribution of the poor, within poor areas its targeting is subject to error and misuse, and the funding allowable per beneficiary family is far less than the poverty line income. But with careful attention to targeting, this Fund can make the difference for many Yemenis between frugal dignity and absolute misery. The other two cash transfer programs, run by the War Veterans Fund and Tribal Affairs Commission, last year reached 29,000 and 9,400 cases, respectively, with a total of about YR1.5 billion – much larger per-capita than the SWF, but limited to a relatively small number of people.
The three work-related programs generate employment and public facilities which generally help the poorer segment of the population. The World Bank funds all three of these through government projects. The largest is the Social Fund for Development, which has done wonderful work helping communities to implement their high priority projects, ranging from education to micro-credit to cultural heritage preservation. The second program, nearly as active, is the Public Works Program which efficiently supports community proposals for basic public infrastructure such as schools, water, health facilities, and roads. During my visit, I had the opportunity to see both Public Works and Social Fund projects. The third program is the Southern Governorates Project, for farmers in southern Yemen who lost land when it was returned to pre-Revolutionary owners. It is helping them develop other lands as well as social and off-farm income development.
Q: World Bank has some kind of association with NGOs. Will you please shed some light on this relationship? What is the WBs assessment of the NGOs activities so far in Yemen?
A: We have increasingly come to appreciate the great value that NGOs can bring to development work. In Yemen as in many other countries we have tried to build trust and cooperation between NGOs and governments tend to want to regulate them too closely. Except on a very small scale we cannot support NGOs directly, but in many cases we learn lessons from them which we apply on a large scale with our government partners. This has worked extremely well in Yemen in the case of the Social Fund for Development, a government organization which does much of its work through Yemeni NGOs. In comparison to many other countries, the NGO community in Yemen is still fairly small, poorly organized and funded, and not very diversified into such areas as public advocacy vs. charity. But it has grown tremendously in recent years. Looking at the combination of expanded funding under the Social Fund for Development and new opportunities arising from the decentralization of government, we are very optimistic about its future.
Q: What are the current projects that the WB is working on with the Yemeni government?
A: Yemen is one of our most active partners in the Middle East and North Africa. In terms of ongoing projects, we have 22 projects under implementation with total lending commitments of $665 million. Our projects are almost as diverse as Yemens development needs, but they are concentrated on education and training, water and sanitation, and public sector administration and policies. For the future, we are preparing projects with the government in water management, farmer support, rural roads, health, and the prerequisites for attracting more private investment to Yemen.
Q: Media is considered to be the fourth state of any democratic country. It plays a pivotal role in ensuring development and exposing corruption. Does the WB have any kind of programs to support the media and train journalists?
A: We believe that the press can be a powerful force for education, public dialogue and good governance, and we have a number of programs to improve its quality. The most important one is run from our office in Sanaa, which provides for periodic seminars on the problems of development and our role, as well as frequent press briefings. Stepping back from the immediate concerns of Yemen, our World Bank Institute also conducts training courses for regional journalists on such topics as economic journalism (to improve reporting on economic issues) and investigative journalism (to help the press play a responsible role in fighting corruption). Finally, we also offer a small number of graduate fellowships each year, open to journalists among others, to provide an opportunity for advanced training at the masters or doctoral level.