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Yemen The Money is There, The Question is Using It

Unemployment in Yemen runs nearly 40 percent, 11 Jan 2010
Unemployment in Yemen runs nearly 40 percent, 11 Jan 2010

World powers are scrambling to find a way to help Yemen fight extremism and the conditions that breed it. Britain is hosting an international conference later this month on military, economic and development aid to the impoverished Arab nation. But, help has been available for years; the hard part is getting it to make a difference.

There is a risk of fatalism about the poverty in Yemen.

This young man in Sana'a has a wife and children, but no job. Asked how he provides for his family, he says he gets the money from God.

The provisions have not been much. The average Yemeni makes less than $3 a day. Nearly 40 percent of the workforce is unemployed and the country's best and brightest often leave for work and a more stable life abroad.

Rebellion, secessionism and extremism throughout the country only makes things worse. Potential revenue builders, including tourism, untapped oil and gas, the refurbishment of the once world-class port of Aden, are at a standstill because of the unrest.

For the Yemeni government, fixing the problems is a daunting task. Deputy Finance Minister Jalal Yacoub says there are no easy answers.

"You really can't fix everything in the country all in one go," said Jalal Yacoub. "It's impossible."

Not that others have not tried to help. Neighboring Gulf countries, Western nations and international aid and monetary agencies have been working with the government in Sana'a for years. Donors have pledged $5 billion in aid for Yemen since 2006 alone. But of that money, only $150 million has actually made it to projects on the ground that might make a difference in the lives of ordinary Yemenis.

Unrest, corruption, the delays inherent in international bureaucracy all contribute to the problem.

Sana'a University Professor Ahmad Seif says, in much of the country, the government's ability to offer basic services is extremely weak.

"We need the state to be present in its distributive functions," said Ahmad Seif. "The state is needed now, desperately, to be omnipresent. Not a repressive state, or a heavy-handed state, but in its functions."

Some in the Yemeni government, with the backing of foreign diplomats, have come up with a ten point plan to make a near-term difference.

Deputy Minister Yacoub says the key is to start small. He says attracting a core group of smart, capable Yemenis to join the government will help. Then they and others can begin to implement change, one step at a time.

"We have for example in the land area, or land issue, we have many laws and regulations all on the books and if we try to implement all those regulations and laws across the entire country it will be quite difficult and challenging," he said. "And so what we are suggesting is translate all of that into something concrete on the ground, create a success story in a small part of the country."

Yacoub says such targeted efforts and small success stories will create momentum and give credibility to the government.

"The citizens will become more comfortable with the government's performance and the government officials will feel more enthusiastic about the process because they will have managed to translate what is on the book into something that is a reality on the ground," said Yacoub. "It will give them more confidence to go and widen the scope of these reforms."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week said the "odds are long" of Yemen overcoming its development problems. But she echoed the thoughts of many by adding, "the cost of doing nothing is potentially far greater."