The Funny Side to It! [Archives:1998/26/Local News]

June 29 1998

I was heavily involved in the recently-held First General Conference of NGOs. Our basic drive was to get a good law for this country. The Ministry of Social Affairs, and some donors were upset. They felt we were meddling. Just imagine the foreigners concluding that we Yemenis were meddling in a Yemeni law draft. How presumptuous!
But that is not the point I want to make. I would like here to share some funny episodes in the NGO conference.
“Al-adad kabeer,” was a sentence I heard over and over. It was supposed to be a complement to us – the organizers – that so many NGOs would send representatives, even though they knew in advance no money was being doled out. It was also a great line to start a conversation. Many participants approached me with various petitions. Most complained they did not get the documents. What they really wanted was the bag in which the papers were stuffed. We had a thousand bags made out. It was supposed to be enough!
Others wanted my so-called insider information as to which donors were easy… (to get money from, that is). I had no answer and the question itself was very Yemeni. But it was there. Whenever people pushed me hard on that count, I would always find an excuse to extricate myself. Often, it would be someone passing by, who I pretended was an old friend whom I have not seen for a while. So I exit ‘promising’ to return shortly.
Before each session, the entry hall became like the traditional Yemeni souq. The conference volunteers and staffers tried very hard to keep the flow moving, and in the right direction. It was a tough job, but somehow it happened.
The group that was sent by the government security circles to sabotage the gathering, if its orientation did not suit them, had a tough job. I often came out of meetings to snoop on them. Their lack of organization, and guilt feeling helped a lot. I knew some of them personally and expressed delight at their interest in voluntary work in Yemen. “So you are into NGOs?” was a line I used without sparing.
I remember my talk to a senior security officer. He felt so embarrassed that he waved “ahlaaaan!” as he grabbed the arm of a passing person. He explained that it was an old friend he had not seen for a while, and promised to come back. “Sure you will!” I retorted with a wicked smile.
The side meetings were very interesting. Very true to Yemeni nature of plotting, groups of NGOs gathered to agree on joint action. Even solid clad agreements, however, ended up falling apart, as everybody went their separate ways.
The lunch event, on the second day was a riot. It was originally scheduled to be held at the Taj Sheba Hotel. As the numbers increased, and seeing how some of the people behaved, we thought we should spare the hotel the anguish. We were right. The fights over the food, and the guys who washed their hands in the fountain water proved right our decision to re-locate.
We changed the venue, booked for 450 persons, and sat there waiting and praying. We were flooded with new ‘participants’. It appears the government’s representation in the conference increased day by day. It has to do with this thing called democracy. During that lunch, they must have had a solid majority.
The women-folk were exceptionally active. We were able to bring new blood into the ring of the feminine leadership of this country. The old leaders saw the turn of the tide, and were not amused. Well, we were not trying to be funny.
But it was not just the old female vanguard that was not happy. Some men were not. “Look here. I appreciate your drive to give women a better role, but this is ridiculous. It is almost fifty-fifty,” complained a bearded participant. Indeed, all key roles in the conference program were split 50-50. “Don’t worry. We are not there yet. It is still 36% female and 64% male I told him.” I was only talking about participation levels.
As presumptuous as the Yemeni opposition is, many politicians and their media representatives thought they can control the conference. They pushed hard the logic of ‘them and us’. Many of them came seeking denounciation of the government, or at least the conference held previously under the patronage of the Ministry of Social Affairs. When the NGO conference organizers refused to play their game, many opposition politicians and their media turned against the event. Their reports were negative.
But that was alright with us. What was not alright was their demand that the conference pay them money. “Why should we pay you?” I asked one of them. “So that we may write about the conference,” he answered. “Then don’t,” I snubbed. It is a bad habit that journalists have to be paid to cover public events.
If anybody looked stupid in the conference, it was the men from the Ministry of Social Affairs. As the financial transparency and accountability concept took grip, the director-general of the ministry who supervised the expenditure of some YR 12 million in the much smaller previous conference was unnerved. He jumped out of his seat and yelled, “If anybody wants to look at our account books, just say so.”Another time, as the NGOs were trying to set up an information network, he jumped again and said that the NGOs did not have legal authority to form a network. His boss, the deputy minister of social affairs suggested that NGOs form an ittihad – a central umbrella body to regulate NGO activity. What did I say, the ministry people, in spite of lots of tutoring from “donor experts” and participation in workshops, are still out of it. When you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it!
By: Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf BELIEVE IT OR NOT: