Ala Qasem, Resonate! Yemen

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.”

Yemen has been inflicted with poverty and instability for decades. One generation after another saw their dreams crushed and ambitions shattered. Those growing up in Yemen today have been made to believe that the “good times” were when the unemployment rate was higher than that of other nations during their financial crises and when poverty plagued more than half the population. If you ask most young Yemenis today about the period before the current conflict, they will without hesitation speak longingly about the better days that have come to pass.

Since the start of the conflict, the private sector, the largest employer in the country, started to close down. By November 2015, 26 percent of all firms in Yemen had shut their doors, the majority of which suffered physical damage. Out of these, 58 percent were run by young people aged 35 and under. Companies that have remained open throughout the conflict have had to lay off a large portion of their staff just to stay afloat. In fact, more than two thirds of small and medium enterprises had to let go around half of their work force.[1] These were the same employers that prevented Yemen’s overall unemployment rate from reaching past 13 percent in 2013, although for Yemenis in the 18-24 age bracket this rate was 24.5 percent[2] – about the same rate that hit the United States in 1933, when unemployment its peak during the Great Depression.

Since the end of 2015, the effects of the conflict did not wane; on the contrary, economic conditions have worsened. The Yemeni riyal has continued to devaluate, dropping from 215 YR to the dollar to around 435 as of this writing. This downward movement in the currency rate is expected to continue in the coming period.

To make matters worse, both the de facto and the internationally recognized governments, which employ around 1.2 million civilian and military staff, have failed to pay consistently the salaries of these employees for over a year now, with some exceptions across sectors and governorates. These 1.2 million employees are estimated to support 6.9 million dependents, altogether accounting for almost a third of the population.

The decline of Yemen’s political parties

In the past, when faced with more moderate economic hardships, young Yemenis would exploit what little political space they had to protest their conditions and demand corrective actions, however small these might be. Their political activism helped them release some of the stress of their daily pressures, and whatever gains they realized helped sustain their hopes that they could stand a chance of starting a family and securing a dignified life.

Although the political space increased during the 2012-2014 transitional period, political parties were still lagging behind. In a study I conducted in 2013 about the barriers facing youth engagement in political decision-making, young members of political parties complained of how undemocratic their institutions had become.[3] What the young party members were asking of their leadership was rather modest: “just apply internal [party] regulations and employ the terms of these regulations.” Hold general assemblies and party elections at their designated times, was their message.

As flawed as they were, these political parties still played a role in challenging the regime. Since the start of the conflict, however, the elites within these parties have decided, instead, to derail the monitoring and accountability functions of their parties. This is partly because some of these elites have become part of the ruling circle and partly because they wanted to please the military hardliners on both sides and the regional powers who saw such activities as counterproductive to the war effort.

This in effect emboldened both the de facto and the legitimate governments to operate without adhering to the most basic of accountability measures. It has been more than two-and-a-half years since the start of the conflict and the internationally recognized government still does not even have an emergency budget. Institutions such as the Central Organization for Control and Auditing, the High Tender Board, the High Authority for Tender and Auctions Control, and the Supreme National Authority for Combatting Corruption were all suspended.

The changing face of civil society in Yemen

The other breathing space that existed for young Yemenis to express their grievances and to attempt to effect change was civil society organizations (CSOs).[4] Yemen had a long tradition of civic activism that could be traced as far back as the 1950s.[5] Civil society evolved since the second half of the 20th century, serving different functions based on the prevailing socioeconomic conditions. At times, CSOs served an economic agenda, as was the case in the 1970s and 80s with the development of the co-operative movements. Through the 1990s and the 2000s, several wars changed the landscape in Yemen. Civil society organizations responded by giving visibility to the human rights violations that were taking place. The oppressed had a space to tell and document their stories. The third wave of civil society activism came in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, when many organizations focused their efforts on promoting participative democracy. Citizen engagement in policy development and decision-making were the key terms of the day.

As with other spaces for expression and self-fulfillment, the current conflict choked CSOs in Yemen. The only kind of civil society organizations that flourished during the war were those focused on humanitarian relief. Operating a human rights organization or one focused on social accountability meant exposing oneself to sinister criticism that at times would escalate to accusations of treachery and physical harm. CSOs were readily labeled and classified depending on where they operated from and who their funders were, rather than on their reach or the objectives of their programs. Mobility became a risk. Staff could not easily move between cities, partly because of the physical dangers encountered on the road, such as land mines and destroyed roads and bridges, and partly because of an increased identity targeting practices of the warring parties. For instance, employees from Taiz find it hard to access areas in the high north and parts of the south because of where they come from. Operational costs have increased due to the lack of basic services and inflation. Donors have not helped in this regard, as funds are predominantly being channeled to humanitarian relief efforts that are necessary but are not alone sufficient for the stability of the country.

What choices remain for Yemen’s youth?

The erosion of the concept of a central state and the emergence of local autonomy over revenue collection and decision making, coupled with the entrenched belief among the youth that decentralization is the only way forward presents another potential source of concern. Decentralization has not always brought accountability and fended off corruption. In fact, research has shown that increased local autonomy accompanied by decreased interaction between national and sub-national levels increases the opportunities for corruption, as corruptible decision-makers become closer to potential bribe-payers.[6] The presence of monitoring activities, as measured by the degree of the freedom of the press, in decentralized forms of governance actually decreases corruption.[7]

In a country like Yemen where civil society in its peak in 2013 had only 19 percent of its organizations focus on local issues and where aid funding was directed mainly to Sana’a-based organizations,[8] the political space for local society is very limited. With access to more than 60 million weapons, and corruption potentially getting local, it would be only a matter of time before these frustrated youth start to use violence to change their realities. If the political infrastructure for decentralization is not established early on, the international community would likely be contributing to the instability in various local communities by directly providing funding to local authorities.

Under these economic and political conditions, the prospects for young Yemenis are rather bleak. Behavioral science teaches us that humans are present-biased, which propels them to discount the future heavily in favor of immediate gain. For young Yemenis, the future appears extremely vague to say the least; so it is only natural that they base their decisions on surviving the present without accounting for the consequences of their actions. The choice they currently face appears straightforward: either stay at home and wait for death to get to you in the form cholera, dengue fever, or starvation, or carry a gun and go meet it head on. And maybe, just maybe, you could survive it and make a living out of it.

So, what needs to be done about it?

Well, plenty. The international community can instill hope that young Yemenis are desperately grasping for. It can create the possibility of a better future, one that can be added to the calculus of the young Yemeni trying to balance every day survival with planning for his or her future. It can invest in economic and political development projects, rather than restrict its funding to humanitarian relief. It must demand and support accountability by all parties receiving its development funding. It should exert genuine efforts to reach out to young Yemenis and ask for their input on development projects. This should not be an exercise in checking off boxes, the type of effort that was exerted after the Arab Spring to satisfy bureaucratic requests. Finally, the situation in Yemen, like in many other conflict-ridden countries, is complex. The international community should not come equipped with grandiose long-term plans that are rendered ineffective a few months after they have been drafted. Development efforts should be experimental and agile. The security, health, and financial situation is changing rapidly and requires adequately responsive programming.


[1] Rapid Business Survey: Impact of the Yemen Crisis on Private Sector Activity (Rep.). (2015, November 16). Retrieved November 2, 2017, from UNDP website: http://www.ye.undp.org/content/dam/yemen/PovRed/Docs/UNDP%20SMEPS%20Rapid%20Business%20Survey.pdf.

[2] Yemen Labour Force Survey 2013-14 (Publication No. 9789221304043; 9789221304050). (2015). Retrieved November 2, 2017, from International Labour Organization website: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_419016.pdf.

[3] Qasem, A. (2013, December). Five barriers to youth engagement, decision-making, and leadership in Yemen’s political parties [PDF]. SaferWorld.

[4] I am consciously eliminating political parties from the civil society categorization to make the distinction of the political space created by political parties and other civil society organizations, especially since most political parties have recently become part of the ruling regime.

[5] Book review Civil Society in Yemen: A Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2017, from http://al-bab.com/book-review-civil-society-yemen-political-economy-activism-modern-arabia.

[6] Neudorfer, B., & Neudorfer, N. S. (2014, August 12). Decentralization and Political Corruption: Disaggregating Regional Authority | Publius: The Journal of Federalism | Oxford Academic. Retrieved November 05, 2017, from https://academic.oup.com/publius/article-abstract/45/1/24/1888884.

[7] Lessmann, C., & Markwardt, G. (2009, December 08). One Size Fits All? Decentralization, Corruption, and the Monitoring of Bureaucrats. Retrieved November 05, 2017, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X09001946.

[8] Al-Eryani, A. (2013, December). Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Yemen: Achievements and Challenges (Publication). Retrieved November 7, 2017, from Yemen Polling Center website: http://www.yemenpolling.org/advocacy/upfiles/ypc-publications1190.pdf.

Gasping for hope: Yemeni youth struggle for their future