World Bank Journalist Workshop Says it all: “Your Role is to be the Watchdog of the Yemeni Government” [Archives:2000/27/Business & Economy]

July 3 2000

The World Bank (WB) successfully held its second Journalist Workshop in Yemen on Saturday July 1st 2000. This workshop is the second after the successful workshop held in Aden last year.
The workshop, which was arranged by the WB Headquarters in Washington, gathered a number of prominent chief editors of Yemeni newspapers, including Yemen Times, and a number of media people in one of the most comprehensive and detailed workshop explaining the WB, its activities, and upcoming projects in Yemen.
The workshop, which was chaired by Mr. Abdullah Bouhabib, Manager of External Relations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region of the WB and Gianni Brizzi, Resident Representative of the WB in Yemen, hosted Mr. Inder Sud, the Director of the Middle East Department of the World Bank.
The workshop started with a welcome statement by Brizzi who expressed his satisfaction with the large number of journalists coming from different newspapers and media organs. He then introduced Mr. Bouhabib and Sud. He indicated that the purpose of the workshop was to “shed light on the WB and its activities.” He also introduced the latest development strategies implemented by the WB in favor of developing countries. He stressed the fact that the WB deals with governments, and concentrated on the governments’ roles in working hard on implementing the WB projects efficiently. “We only provide the funds and directions, and the rest lies in governments’ hands” he said.
Afterwards, Mr. Bouhabib gave a comprehensive lecture about the different organizations belonging to the WB. “There are 4 organizations working under the umbrella of the WB. These are IDA, IBRD, MIGA, and IFC, all having their headquarter in Washington, D.C.” He continued by describing Yemen’s role in the WB. “Yemen has a 0.1% of the total share of the capita of the bank, which is approximately $ 170 Billion. When compared to many other countries, one would realize that this amount is not little after all. Actually, Yemen has to pay only 5% of this amount, which is just $8.5 million.” He indicated.
Then he openly challenged any other easier and more convenient way of earning money for developmental purposes by saying, “Countries benefiting from IDA, such as Yemen, have a 50 year period to pay back their loans. Not only that, but with no interest at all, let alone the first 10-year period, during which the country does not need to pay anything.” He stated that all countries of the world, except Cuba and North Korea are members of the WB. According to Mr. Bouhabib, the number of projects financed by the WB so far exceeded 4,700 projects. “Yemen’s projects financed by the WB in 1999 totaled to more than $170 million.” He concluded.
Then Mr. Inder Sud started his presentation, which dealt with Yemen in particular. “We can assess Yemen’s accomplishments in implementing WB’s projects as good because during the last 5 years, Yemen was able to accomplish a lot by hard work in all fields, economically, politically, and socially.” But the story also has a dark side, as “Yemen also suffered increasing poverty, unemployment, deteriorating civil services, decrease of oil production, and scarcity of water resources in the near future.”Mr. Sud emphasized on the importance of the implementation of different reforms simultaneously, among them is improving public administration by efficiency development mechanisms, privatization, implementing judicial reforms, strengthening local authority. Then he focused on the increasing of private investment by finding alternatives to Oil production as a source of revenue, granting the right of land ownership, raising the accountability of the financial system, and by increasing efficiency of public services, the judicial system, the taxation system, and privatization mechanisms. He also gave importance to the water issue, as it is one of the most critical problems, or as he said, “crises of Yemen.” He also recommended the development of coastal areas as a way to occupy citizens coming from central regions and establishing industrialized complexes near coasts to absorb the labor forces.
Finally he pointed out the importance of driving attention to education issues by providing basic education to all children by making it compulsory, which will help develop local societies.
“However, all of these cannot be implemented unless a strong political will is available. We would like to notify all Yemenis that the World Bank is merely an institution that tries to guide governments to the right steps to take in order to achieve better economic conditions, and gives the financing as well. However, it is then up to governments to decide whether to go for it or not, i.e., the ball usually ends up in the government’s court.”
Afterwards, a long discussion and debate session took place, during which several journalists asked critical questions such as: Why isn’t the WB doing a thing to stop the corruption? How can the labor force thrown out of work because of privatization be compensated? Is the World Bank an American Organ used as a propaganda tool for the West? How can you assess Yemen’s economy as enhancing while poverty is increasing and is evident every where? Why doesn’t the World Bank provide documents that prove failures of the government to accomplish WB projects? And other similar questions.
All the answers to the above questions were given by the three WB representatives, who sometimes felt embarrassed at the critical questions asked, especially the accusations that the WB is no more than an American propaganda and way to increase poverty instead of decrease it by lifting subsidies to basic food items and fuel.
The discussion was followed by a presentation by Mr. Gianni Brizzi, who explained the role and activities of the World Bank office in Sanaa. He explained how needs are assessed, proposals are discussed with local authorities, how proposals are sent for approval to the WB’s head quarter, and how their funds are later delivered to the government. “Established in July 2995, the WB’s Sanaa Office was a direct result of the need for an office that can coordinate with the locals directly and listen to the needs and proposals of the local community. Its role has been to be a linking unit between the clients and the World Bank.” He also expressed his readiness to help all who seek information, especially journalists who may be helpful in providing a lot of helpful information to the public about the true role of the World Bank, and how it could be beneficial for them in all aspects.
Later on, two more presentations were made by Mr. Kaisar Khan, an economic expert in the development of human resources at the WB, and by Mr. Abdullah Al-Dailami, the director of the Local Societies Development Unit of the Social Development Fund. The first presentation was about managing social risks in Yemen, the other was about the Social Development Fund, that has proved to be one of the most successful in Yemen.
At the end of the workshop, Mr. Bouhabib stressed on the importance of continuous coordination between journalists and the WB to bring a clear picture of its real role in their societies. He noted the possible differences in points of view that may arise.
He then summed up the workshop by a decisive, strong, and straightforward statement, “I know that some would write about this workshop critically, while others won’t write at all. However, when inviting you, we did not place any conditions of publishing something about this workshop. All we want you to do is develop a better understanding of the WB and try in your own ways to work on having WB’s projects successful in Yemen by acting as watchdogs. We want you to follow up your governments and to check whether they are serious in implementing our projects in the way they are supposed to be implemented and on time. Wish you all the best in your difficult mission.”
After the workshop, a lunch was organized on the honor of Mr. Mohamed Sofan, Minister of Planning, who gave a speech on this occasion thanking the WB for his effort in bringing journalists together and holding such workshops that help a lot in enlightening the public about the World Bank and its activities through the press.
After the workshop was over, Yemen Times took the opportunity in meeting Mr. Inder Sud and filing a comprehensive interview about the World Bank and Yemen. Below are some excerpts.
Q: Could you please give us an introduction to this workshop that is actually the second to the one held last year in Aden?
A: First of all, let me tell you that I am glad to be here in Yemen as this is a great opportunity for me to follow-up with the workshop we held with the journalists last time in Aden. We have just complete our own country strategy for Yemen and will be presenting it to the board soon. The Yemeni government itself is embarked on the preparation for the five-year plan. Of course there are several questions asked by many about the future of the country economically. I believe that this particular workshop is of great importance as I believe that journalists can play an important role in the society in terms of asking the hard questions and keeping us all honest, ensuring public integrity, and also generating a constructive discussion. I believe that the workshop we held today has indeed fulfilled many of these objectives. The questions were difficult, but valid questions, on which we need to reflect. I hope that this will be the start of the process of more and more questions on such issues.
Q: A lot of people in Yemen mix the WB with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Could you please describe the difference between both organizations?
A: I am glad you asked this question because we are two sister institutions as we were born from the same mother in 1954 after the reconstruction of war. However, although we fundamentally are both interested in the social and economic development of countries, we have quite different functions. The main difference is that the IMF is responsible for short-term stability, while the WB aims at long-term economic stability. This is why when countries are out of war crisis for example, when budget deficits are out of control, when the country faces a short-term economic crisis, the IMF interferes by providing finances to the troubled country to get it out of the temporary crisis. Sometimes stability is achieved on the cost of development. For example, when a country gets a loan to stabilize a budget deficit, a long-term development plan is sacrifices. However, the WB is a development institution that works on long-term plans. Development can never be achieved over night. It sometimes requires more than 20 years to witness any economic improvement, and this is facilitated much by non-profit WB loans to developing countries. Hence, in some cases, one generation would begin such a development program, and only the next generation could gain its fruits. The WB does guide governments and explain to them how inflation can be lowered, how services can be enhanced, whether goods should be subsidies and when, etc. This means that our projects deal with education, health, public services, telecommunications, roads, water supply, etc.. However, part of our duty is to help governments think to do, as we cannot keep on thinking for governments forever. Governments should learn how to deal with their issues independently and efficiently.
In conclusion, the IMF helps governments get out of their economic crises in the short-term, while the WB help countries improve their overall economic performance in the long-term.
Q: How do you feel the permanent Yemeni-Saudi border treaty signed recently could affect the Yemeni economy?
A: As a friend of Yemen, I am delighted to see that such a breakthrough treaty has been signed. The dispute has lasted for as long as I have been to Yemen. So, seeing that both countries have reached such an agreement is quite pleasant. I am not an expert in the treaty, so I cannot comment on its contents and direct implications on the economy and politics. However, what it has done in my view is very important. It removed the degree of uncertainty, which always created problems. In today’s world, stability has become a major factor behind increasing investment and economic growth. I believe the agreement opens new opportunities for economic cooperation and exchange of ideas. After all, Saudi Arabia is your neighbor, and ironically, many Saudi businessmen are actually of Yemeni origin. It seems to me that this dispute has always been a source of potential uncertainty, as many thought there may be a war between the two countries. Now that this is out of the way, I hope that we will see Saudi investment in Yemen. In addition, this treaty is a breakthrough for Yemen Internationally also, within the last 10 years, countries that have gained foreign investment were the ones with little uncertainty. I think that even though this agreement will not solve all Yemen’s problems, it is still a step in the right direction.
Q: The WB is not only an institution that gives funds, but it also guides the government and provides valuable advice of what to do and when to do it. Could you provide us with some of the main points that you think Yemen should concentrate on in the time being?
A: In the last 5 years, the government has done remarkably well in economic stabilization, however much work lies ahead. On the basic macroeconomic fundamentals, the conditions now are quite different from what they were 5 years ago, but this is still not enough. Yemen has to build an economy that is capable of providing job opportunities, and enabling the poor to develop their own sources of income to raise their income level. This cannot be done by the government alone, as the private sector should also play an important role as well. The government’s focus should be on creating conditions in which the private sector can feel comfortable. In other words, that could only be by creating civil service, decreasing bureaucratic obstacles and regulations, and increasing more private sector involvement in decision making. The government should also spend its money on the highest priority areas such as strengthening the infrastructure and concentrating on the social sectors such as education and health, and protecting low income groups. We have the foundation, but it is time to build a house on it, and building a house is almost as difficult as building the foundation, and that is what we are going to work on with the government.
Q: You said in the last workshop that if no work is to be done to eliminate corruption and inefficiency in the government, this will affect your program. Now that a year has passed with corruption in the same level, was the WB program affected?
A: First of all, It is not that the government did not work on reducing corruption. Reports show that some, even though extremely little, progress has been made. We do support civil service reforms implemented so far by the government. Hence, we realized that the government should be encouraged to continue on the same path. Let me tell you that for the first time in Yemen, every civil servant has a proper personal file. It is a simple step, but honestly speaking, it is a difficult one and it shows that things are moving on. I have to agree with you that much has to be done. But we should at least show some appreciation to what has been accomplished so far, and ask for more. About the size of the government, yes, there is need for reducing the large number of employees in government offices. However, we should also offer training, giving them a proper work environment in another institution, or giving them a compensation salary. These are quite difficult issues that governments have a difficult time implementing. However, as you know, there are some success stories, and the Social Development Fund is one of them. I do believe there is hope, but it is in the hands of the government, and the government itself. I believe that I will need to raise this issue tomorrow with the minister of planning and the prime minister as this is an important issue that needs more effort and a stronger political will.
Q: Many complain that the main obstacle behind the little investment in the country is the corrupt judicial system, particularly corruption in commercial courts. What projects does the WB have that would help reforming the judicial system?
A: I totally agree with the assessment because investors usually run into problems and need an honest judicial system that would defend their rights and money. We actually have provided a small pilot project ($ 2.5 Million) to strengthen the judicial system composed of the ministry of legal affairs and ministry of justice in Yemen. We have started training judges and have for the first time ever compiled the Yemeni laws that have been compiled that have been issued through the years. The judicial issue is quite a complicated issue and requires a lot of study before we start. This is why we started with this pilot project, which will be followed by more important projects that would concentrate on commercial courts.
Q: You know that Yemen is the country with the highest population growth rate in the world (exceeding 3.5%). What is the WB doing about this?
A: I am glad that you raised this question too. I have toured the country during the last two years, and what stroke me most was the increasing number of children seen everywhere. This means that the population is increasing rapidly. Even though we do not have projects aiming at reduction of population growth, we still have social projects that in some way or another implicitly refer to the importance of family planning and population growth control. But I believe that this is a serious issue that I feel we should concentrate on in the future.
Q: We also have the water problem. I believe that your program concentrates on it a lot, could you brief our readers about your efforts in this regard?
A: I would want to call this a water crisis rather than water problem. We are seeing the water levels dropping every day especially in the Sanaa area. We had programs in the past, and we need to increase awareness about this issue. We have to educate people about this issue. There are a lot of projects ahead we believe would help reducing the risk of a total dry out of Sanaa, which is suffering from major depletion. This issue is more important than one can imagine because water is the source of life, and drinking water is basically what Sanaa is in dire need for. I believe that much needs to be done, and we do indeed have several projects that may help somewhat in preventing a true disaster.
Q: What about Qat? That plant that is consuming most of Yemen’s ground water, and harming the economy?
A: I personally do not have much to say about qat, which seems to be a social issue that is not only damaging the water resources, but also causing a lot of negative affect on family budget’s as much is spent on it. We have once before arranged on a workshop on qat in Yemen. I must be honest in saying that I do not myself know what the answer to the qat problem is! I know that President Saleh has started a campaign against qat, and several educated individuals have started such campaigns as well. Sometimes I get the feeling that political will and education are two major steps that may help contain this problem. However, we are still wide open for any suggestions on how Yemen could ever get rid of qat.
Q: Yemenis are known throughout history to be quite resilient. However, every Yemeni wants to know when these reforms would ever lead to improvement, if they would at all. Can you give a date in which we see reduction in poverty?
A: If the government is serious enough, I am confident that we can see positive change within the coming 5 years. But I repeat, this only is in the hands of the government, and no one else can give any date. I do give the Yemeni public all the right to be impatient as they have suffered a lot and deserve happier days. As a matter of fact, they should be unhappy about it and push the government to do more n this regard. In brief, it is all in the hands of the government and not in our hands, we cannot decide for the government when to act seriously or when to double its efforts. It is a matter of political will and hard work, by the government, and only by the government.
Q: Finally, you mentioned in the workshop that the WB always advises the government to take your advises. Well, does the government do with the advice?
A: The best times is when the government takes our advice and decides whether they use our advice or not, which is a very healthy action. The WB is not always right, and the government should sometimes decided whether it should take our advice and use it or just ignore it. We don’t want the government to be a blind follower to what we say. We want it to think and see what is best for it and for its people and do it accordingly.
Q: Any final remarks?
A: All I want to say is that I dream of a more prosperous Yemen, with fewer poor people, less unemployment, and better overall conditions. It always refreshes me when seeing the beneficiaries of our projects, whether a school, a hospital, a public service, etc. Being in this business, I am ware of the tremendous challenge ahead of us. In the coming years, I will concentrate on reducing poverty by introducing and implementing appropriate and well-studied methods. I will consider my 10 years involvement with Yemen a success if every child -boy or girl- is in school, a health system is available to all [regnant and young mothers, and seeing families live in happiness without the worries of not being able to make ends meet the next day. Only then will I feel that my mission was totally successful.