NGOs in Yemen: Learning from Past Experiences! [Archives:1998/27/Focus]

June 6 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
By Sato (Kan) Hiroshi*
I Worry About Mushrooming of NGOs in Yemen:
I was very impressed when I attended the First General Conference of NGOs in Sanaa during 16-18 June, 1998. I saw so many so-called “NGOs” gathered there. When I first visited Yemen in 1983, nobody talked about NGOs in Yemen.
When I worked at the Japanese Embassy in Sanaa during the late 1980s as an ‘economic and technical cooperation attache’, I noticed a few ‘charitable societies’ but they never called themselves ‘NGOs’.

What has changed? Why did the phrase ‘NGO’ become a favorite term in Yemen? I think one of the main reasons is misunderstanding or over-expectation on the part of Yemenis regarding the donors. The misunderstanding goes like this: “If we make an ‘NGO’, we will have access to foreign donors, and if we succeed in making contact with foreign donors, they give us some ‘development projects’ or at least some money.”
Thus, from the view point of some of the NGOs, ‘donors mean money’. Hence the mushrooming of NGOs now.
I worry about the impact of this misunderstanding on the future of Yemen. In the long run, this will kill the self-reliant development spirit which Yemen is proud of, and may erode the cultural dignity of ‘Arabia Felix’.
In the NGO conference, I presented a paper and pointed to some of the local problems which we, as foreign donors, encounter frequently in dealing with local NGOs. That observations are based on my personal experience, but I’m sure other donors may have similar experiences.
The purpose is not to criticize anybody, but just to have a better understanding of the problems and find the best ways to address them.
In some developing countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, there are many development-oriented NGOs. They receive huge amounts of money from donor countries. NGOs mean business there, and they offer good job opportunities for the local bright young men and women. But, there is little “development’. Yemen should not repeat this.
We should think well about what NGOs can do, and what donors can do.
Some Yemeni NGO Problems in Receiving Donated Money:
Some common problems we encountered in dealing with local NGOs relate to their absorptive capacity. For the better development of Yemeni NGOs, those problems should not be repeated.
Mushkila (Problem) 1:
No Receipts are Presented:
Once the person from the NGO receives the check from the donor, he/she disappears and no report or invoice is sent back to the donors (for example, the Embassy of Japan). Some NGOs are often difficult to locate. Donors have no way of tracing the money. We don’t know what they bought, or whether they really bought something for the project or they used the money to chew better qat.
Mushkila (2):
Buying Goods Not Specified in the Contract:
After receiving the check, the chairman or whoever is in charge at the NGO would often change his/her mind. They would decide to purchase something not mentioned in the original contract between donors and NGOs. For example, one NGO bought a video player although the contract only mentioned a video camera. It’s a violation of the contract.
NGOs are given financial support after examining and approving the original list of necessary goods. NGOs have no right to change their declared shopping lists without consulting the donor. Donors do not give shopping coupons with which NGOs can buy everything they want in the suq. NGOs should buy the items agreed upon in the contract, or return the money to the donor.
Mushkila (3):
Private Use of Donated Goods:
Not only NGOs, but also many government bodies ask for 4-wheel drive cars. And in many cases, those cars are not used for the originally-declared purposes. This is a violation of the contract. Many cars are assigned for the private use of the mudir (director, chairman) of the NGO or government office.
Many Yemeni people jokingly talk to the Japanese people that ‘since the car market in Yemen is 90% dominated by the Japanese cars, you have the responsibility to give us a gift’. That does not make sense. Maybe Toyota has a good share of the Yemeni car market. But the Toyota Land Cruiser or “saloon” – as it is called in Yemen – which sometimes the Japanese aid money is used to buy is not a gift from the Toyota Company.
It was bought by the Japanese government with Japanese taxpayers’ money. Japanese taxpayers hope this car will be used for a good development project, they would never think about the amenity of the Mudir.
Mushkila (4):
Not Completing the Project:
At one time, the Japanese Embassy donated walls and doors for a rural school, but the school never opened because there is no roof. Another time the Japanese government donated air conditioning for some project bodies, but they are not in use because there is no electricity.
Or JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) donated computers to an office project, but they are not in use because there is no one who can use a computer.
When NGOs, (actually not just NGOs, but also government bodies) ask donors for assistance, there is a natural tendency to request more luxurious and sophisticated goods. But they should also think how those goods could be used efficiently and how able they are to maintain them (including money for buying spare parts). If you think you cannot use or maintain an equipment, don’t request it.
Mushkila (5):
Quarrels within NGO Members
Some of the NGOs are dominated by one strong person. As a Japanese (read, oriental), I don’t care about ‘western democracy’ nuances. The Yemeni society has a tradition of its own , sort of a democracy of it own. If the NGOs are not functioning well, either a ‘written charter’ or ‘election of the board members’ is a must.
But the most serious problem plaguing local NGOs is the dispute that takes place among members over money, policy, recruitment, etc., paralyzing the activity of the NGO. The Japanese Embassy prepared money (after getting authorization from Tokyo) for an NGO, but suddenly this NGO was dissolved because of internal problems. Quarrels among the leaders do not benefit the local people.
Everybody has different ideas and interests, so quarrels may arise everywhere. Activities must not be stopped easily if donor money is already received, or even just available. NGOs have responsibility towards the donors. If you don’t want to be responsible to foreign donors, don’t receive their money.
Mushkila (6):
Intervention by Government
This is not an NGOs problem, strictly speaking. If there is a successful local NGO, some people (outside this NGO) become jealous. Also local administrators sometimes feel unhappy about the existence of an influential NGO in their locality.
Such a problem arose recently. The Japanese Embassy once donated sewing machines for an NGO women training center, which were being used very well. After some time, local politics affected the activity of this NGO. Some of the local people claimed that those sewing machines are their property and asked the government to confiscate them.
The government sent military people to confiscate those sewing machines and moved them to another place, of course without consulting the Japanese Embassy. And worst of all, those sewing machines are not in use any more. The Japanese Embassy donated those machines for the women’s training and not to be stored in some dusty place.
Of course, Yemeni NGOs should abide by Yemeni laws and regulations, but the government should have a minimum say in their activities. But since the NGOs are supposed to serve their people, government intervention should be minimal and the government should not poke its nose in the internal matter of NGOs.
Finally, I want to repeat. The purpose of this article is not to accuse anybody, but to avoid making the same mistakes, over and over. We should learn from bad experiences.
From a global view, NGOs are key in ‘participatory development’. Donors prefer NGOs, though they will continue to engage the government. Thus, more stable and disciplined local NGOs are needed. Too much interference by the government will spoil the dynamism of NGOs. Too much interference by donors will kill the self-reliant initiative of the local NGOs.
* Sato Kan Hiroshi is a sociologist/economist at the Institute of Developing Economies in Tokyo, Japan. His main field of research is Yemen, where he lived during 1985-88 and again since 1997, is in the social impact of development aid projects in developing countries.
He conducted research in several south Asian and Southeast Asian nations and published many books. He is a founding member and director of the “Japan-Yemen Friendship Association”, established in Tokyo in 1996.