This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! NGO Development in Yemen [Archives:1998/03/Focus]

January 19 1998

By: Dr. Fouad Abdulajaleel Al-Salahi, Sociology Dept., College of Arts, Sanaa University
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) started to appear and be more active in Yemen after the unification of the South and North. Yemen’s post-unification constitution gives the right to individuals and groups to organize themselves socially, culturally, economically, and politically. Moreover, the constitution recognizes political pluralism which was, to different degrees, forbidden by the two ruling regimes in the North and South before unity. The emergence of NGOs indicates that the state condones a certain margin of civil liberty, allowing society in general to act somewhat independently from the authority of the state. On another level, it also indicates that individuals, especially NGO leaders and members, are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of their roles in society and the importance of NGOs on the local, regional, and international levels.
NGOs are generally concerned with the activities of individuals and groups within the political and civil space which was “grabbed” from the state. This space grows bigger as the NGOs become more active and more confident. The major types of NGOs in general include; – human rights and civil liberties; – research centers; – trade unions, professional syndicates, and scientific associations and; – economic and business organizations. Added to the above, are all the modern civil establishments. The NGO concept is being widened to the extent that some sociologists regard the concept of civil society the same as the concept of NGOs. This is, a mistaken interpretation of the NGO concept from the methodological point of view. The concept of civil society is wider and more encompassing. It includes within its big framework the largest collection of organizations and establishments, including NGOs. Since the new unified Yemeni state condones the public activities of political parties and other civil society organizations, all the legal determinants (the constitution, journalism and political parties laws) have helped to a certain extent, in giving legitimacy to the activities of NGOs and other civil society organizations. However, the number of NGOs in Yemen is still rather modest, compared to other countries in the region. But the mere emergence of NGOs points to the presence of many individuals who wish to act independently from the control of the state’s apparatuses. Such individuals desire to be active in the economic, social, and cultural spheres as part of a worldwide trend towards relying more on NGOs. The American thinker Samuel Huntington considers the big transformations taking place in several Third World countries and the independent former Soviet states as a third global process of democratization.
NGOs in Yemen can be classified and enumerated as follows: 1- trade unions – 10; 2- population assistance – 12; 3- Yemeni-foreign friendship associations – 20; 4- professional societies – 32; 5- scientific research centers – 22; 6- defending public issues – 9; and 7- the Child Rights Coordination Association, which is an umbrella organization containing 40 individual societies. NGOs in Yemen have wide and varied activities in dealing with important public issues such as fighting corruption, combating the consumption of qat, defending human rights and civil liberties, monitoring the parliamentary elections and several other spheres of public interest. A detailed review and analysis of all these NGOs, their activities, the reasons behind their establishment and their relations with the state can be found in the Ph.D. thesis prepared by the author of this article to be published soon.
Generally speaking, studying NGO activity is a relatively new field of interest in Yemen. This is due to many considerations, some of which are related to the development of the Yemeni society and the prominence of traditional establishments. Other considerations are connected to the relatively new democratic experience in Yemen which has allowed the formation of such organizations in the first place. On a third level, support given to the NGOs by Yemeni intellectuals was rather delayed. Intellectuals represent the most important social segment that is likely to support the modernization processes including the formation of NGOs, which is one of the mechanisms of the development project taking place within the economic and political liberalization. NGOs can only grow and prosper with the increase in the margin of democracy and the maturing of public awareness of the importance of these organizations. Considering that many NGOs are non-profit voluntary organizations, public awareness of their importance and goals becomes all the more necessary for their growth and success.
Determining the NGOs’ goals and the pattern of their relations with the state leads to the proper understanding of the general field where these NGOs are active. This takes added importance, considering that Yemeni NGOs have become the focus of attention and being assisted by their foreign counterparts and foreign donor establishments. Although non-political in their nature, NGOs may play certain political roles by being infiltrated by the authorities or by being under the influence of their local or foreign donors and fund raisers. Therefore, NGOs have to be extremely transparent in their activities. They must clearly specify their general goals, financial sources, ways of expenditure, and other significant information in an annual report to be autonomously prepared without any external interference. Transparency and clarity of goals are bound to develop an NGO in quality and in quantity by attracting new members. Such an NGO will also have more credibility in the eyes of the public in general and those individuals who deal directly with the NGO. The more an NGO is sensitive to the needs of its targeted segment of society the more support it will get and the larger it will grow.
NGOs with clear and fully crystallized goals and transparent activities can cooperate together in consolidating the democratization process in Yemen and enhancing its civil establishments and culture. A lot of effort is required to form a strongly entrenched civil culture that will be helpful in supporting the liberal transformation and explaining its significance for building a modern establishmentarian state where private organizations and NGOs form an essential part. The author calls on all NGOs in Yemen to be more closely associated with the social realities and problems of the country. Most prominent of these issues are combating blood revenge and carrying weapons, fighting qat, eradicating illiteracy, providing health services especially in the countryside and for women and children, political freedoms, human rights and the spread of a pluralistic civil culture. Most or all of these problems were brought to satisfactory resolutions by the Western countries who fund and support Yemeni NGOs.
Some of the NGOs in Yemen are far from being associated with the country’s actual realities. They were formed solely for the financial gains and aggrandizement of those in charge. Some NGO leaders started to resemble mercenaries more than being people who are entrusted with certain social duties. The author calls on all Yemeni NGOs to establish an information coordination network in order to crystallize a true civil culture and form closer links with the society’s true realities.