By Michael Shank
Trust is essential for any society to function. If it’s not there, political and economic progress is impossible.
That’s exactly what’s happening in Yemen right now. From the public’s perspective in Sana’a where I spent the last week, the transitional government cannot be trusted, nor can much of the international donor and development community. This is a serious problem and could spell the collapse of tenuous transitional roadmaps unless course-corrected immediately.
Consider Yemen’s government. The transitional government repeatedly claims no responsibility for the provision of basic services to nearly 25 million people in Yemen, despite the fact that the majority’s basic security needs are desperate and they are sitting dangerously on the precipice of a collapse.
There is a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Yet, transitional government officials unabashedly tell me that their government has no business in these affairs. This is shocking and indefensible. The elites are letting millions starve and sicken in unsanitary and deplorable conditions.
Equally baffling, the transitional government claims that it cannot control corruption and that corruption isn’t commonplace, despite overwhelming evidence proving otherwise. Inefficacy among the governing elite has led to disastrous finances – excessive government spending on fuel subsidies hasn’t helped – leaving the government with less than three months of funds in the bank. Economic collapse appears imminent, no matter how much benevolent proffering took place in London at the “Friends of Yemen” meeting last week with international donors.
Some in Sana’a suspect that the reason why Yemen’s government, past and present, is unwilling to take care of the basic needs of the population, is to retain control over the population, with one civil society leader quipping: “If you want your dog to follow you, keep him hungry”. The more passive, the better, the thinking goes.
Sana’s elites seem unwilling to do what’s necessary to take care of their people or fix the recurring fuel crisis. People here have little patience to stomach another year of excuses. This is why a new government is so critical.
This lack of trust comes with serious consequences: Yemeni citizens won’t be paying taxes anytime soon. Their rationale makes sense. Why give the transitional government money if it’s wholly corrupt and can’t take care of its constituency? There’s little public incentive to pay taxes when they won’t see that money returned through clean water and sanitation, infrastructure, or economic development.
Taxes are essential for the government to function. Currently, taxes comprise only 7.8 percent of the government’s total revenue. Yet, much of government industry – including the oil, agriculture and industrial sectors – is exempt from paying taxes and has been for years. Individuals that aren’t exempt bribe their way out of paying taxes, and tax evasion is rampant. Upper-income earners who do file do so subjectively, with self-assessments that only have to be approved by an accountant and can’t be scrutinized by authorities. Until Yemeni government officials and big industry leaders are willing to pay income and corporate taxes, don’t expect the public to get on board anytime soon.
To restore trust, the government needs to lead by example if they want to increase their taxpayer base. Doing so might address some of the frustration articulated by the head of Yemen’s Tax Authority who is pushing for an automated tax system to end corrupt skimming – at all levels of government – and calling for the national and local government to be replaced by technocrats.
If Yemen’s government adhered to a robust tax agenda, the head of Yemen’s tax authority estimates an additional $5 billion would be available for government revenue. (That figure doesn’t include the agricultural sector, in order to protect the fragile farming population, nor hard-to-calculate smuggled goods.) This is how the government can begin to build the people’s trust. Citizens must first see government lead competently before they’re asked to follow.
The international community is also culpable for failing to garner trust among Yemen’s civil society. The feeling in Sana’a among organizations working on child’s rights and youth political and economic development is that the international community sees Yemenis as “idiots” (their words verbatim). Sadly, I heard this from several prominent and reliable sources last week in Sana’a.
Foreign donors and aid agencies, according to some of the country’s leading nonprofits, maintain a non-transparent approach on project budgets and proposals, dominate with hidden agendas, fail to build local nongovernmental capacity, employ people with little expertise on subject matter and little cultural awareness, and appear keen to keep selling Yemen as insecure because it continues their job opportunities. Foreign firms, furthermore, are picking off the best talent in local nonprofits, paying them two-to-three times the nonprofit salary, leaving Yemeni civil society with little leadership potential after investing heavily in their staff.
These real concerns and perceptions are undermining trust in the international community and derailing development partnership potential. Without trust in national or international bodies, hope is often difficult to maintain. Without hope in legitimate forms of governance, people often turn to illegitimate means to meet human needs. This is where violence begins.
But not all is lost. There are community organizations working with Yemen’s youth – who compose the majority of the country’s population and who led the revolution – to build their economic and political potential. After being demoralized and disillusioned by the 2011 revolution’s failure to replace the old political guard, these youth are now channeling any loss of hope and trust in positive and culturally appropriate ways.
One successful business development program for young women, for example, promotes Islam as compatible with female leadership in the workplace, highlighting the fact that Khadija, Prophet Mohammad’s wife, ran a business at which the prophet also worked. This is the kind of cultural sensitivity on which trust is founded. More of this is needed.
As community-based organizations are busy incubating Yemen’s next small businesswoman and training tomorrow’s community leader, a renewed trust in tomorrow is being built. Yemen’s government and international donors would do well to take a cue. This is Yemen’s next revolution, and until Sana’a’s elites understand that, they will forever fail to lead this nation into what it can become. It is time for them to step aside. A new Yemen waits in the wings.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.