WHAT WENT WRONG Between the People & Government of Yemen [Archives:1998/27/Last Page]

June 6 1998

By: Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf,
Professor of Economics,
Sanaa University.
The last few weeks have witnessed considerable agitation and restlessness in many parts of the country. The immediate cause was the price hikes which resulted from the removal of subsidies. But, the underlying reasons are more complicated.
But first, let us take the obvious reason – the measures taken by the state to correct price distortion; i.e., removal of subsidies done under the overall reform package. The government says that these reforms are necessary, and that its budget can no longer support the heavy burden of subsidies.
That is absolutely correct.
Yet, in my opinion, there are 3 flaws in the way the government has been going about these measures.
1) The government has failed to involve the various opinion makers of the country in this process. If the government had explained what it plans to do, why it must do it, and how it proposes to do it, there would have been far less resistance. For example, the representatives of the people sitting in parliament have not been brought on board. The leaders of the various political parties have not been consulted. The media leaders have not been informed. The university professors, the lawyers, engineers, medical doctors, etc., have been neglected. In fact, even the business leaders of this country are not fully aware of the process.
What this boils down to is the need to change the arrogant behavior of government officials. One of the basic principal of a democratic system is that opinion-makers are just as important as decision-makers. The officials in government had better learn that, and fast.
2) The image of a corrupt government does not help. The public is negatively moved by the affluence of people in senior public offices, while they know well that these people were not originally rich, nor does their salary amount to anything. The question is, therefore, how is it that they can manage to amass so much wealth in a short time. Who pays for the money-grabbing adventures of our officials?
Therefore, to ask the public to be patient and to accept to suffer even more while the people in senior public offices are basically immune to the hardships is logically wrong and morally untenable.
Just think about it.
Most senior officials have hordes of bodyguards. Therefore, they are immune to breakdown in security. Most senior officials have electric generators. Therefore, they are immune to electric blackouts. Most senior officials have water wells at home. Therefore, they are immune to shortfalls in water supply. Most senior officials have private gardens at home. Therefore, they are oblivious to the lack of public parks. Most senior officials rush off abroad to take care of medical needs. They are immune to lack of medical services at home. Most senior officials send their kids to private schools or even abroad. They are not worried about the breakdown of educational services. The list can go on.
Basically, senior government officials actually do not live with us, or at least do not share with us the services.
3) The government has tried to fight back by blaming this or that group of people. At first, some officials actually blamed the whole public. The accusations were that either the public was not patriotic enough to suffer quietly, or that they did not know their interests. What a joke? This can be traced to textbooks. For example read what the rulers of France were saying about the public just before the Revolution.
Then the officials started to narrow down the blame. First the finger was pointed at the “mundasseen” – people who sneaked into the crowds to make trouble. Then the finger was shifted to include some political parties.
Now the government officials are trying to point the finger at Yemen’s industrialists. They say that the biscuit and confectionery factories are actually the people benefiting from the subsidies. The way to read this is that the government is trying to shift the anger at the implied “parasites”.
How irresponsible can these government people be?
Not only that, these new accusations come from a background of a sick sectarian approach and possibly with an eye to settle old scores.
In the final analysis, the issue is not the reform package, but how our officials manage it!