on 3 August 2011
Anyone going to work or study in the Yemen would find this an interesting insight into a country which it is not always easy to see below the surface of. In addition, anyone thinking of working for one of the aid organisations should certainly read this, no matter where they are going to work. Those considering making a donation to such organisations might find this worth reading too.
Yemen is a fascinating and ancient country, many people who have been there find they acquire a genuine love for the place, and the people they meet and get to know during their stay. It can also inspire a certain fear for its vulnerability to change, of a destructive sort. One thing which visitors might meet, are other foreigners who have 'ideas' as to the way in which the country should 'progress'. This normally comes from a store of received wisdom, parroted but never examined, and often concerned not with the immediate concerns of the nation, but on social and cultural matters, rightly be the business of the local population alone. Misguided certainties from amateur agricultural experts are a favourite - blatantly false and destructive ideas about interfering with the Qat trade for example. ( I will give my own opinion here - the money made from the cultivation of this crop is the main reason that a rural life still appeals, and why there has not been a wholesale exodus to an urban sprawl around the major cities such as elsewhere. Furthermore, the suggestion that land used for Qat cultivation could be used for growing coffee shows an ignorance of the botanical requirements of, and commercial trade in, both crops). The 'old city' area of the capital city of Sanaa is a Unesco World Heritage site. This made it a target for those with plans and ideas, the streets, unpaved for centuries, were unsuitably paved twice before my arrival, in the same high handed way council planners pave over and decorate streets in UK towns. Presumably with financial advantages to all parties concerned, the roads were first covered with tarmac by the Italians, then this was dug up and replaced with cobbles. (The cobbles were perhaps 'picturesque', and therefore suitable for a nation which might be in need of an importation of 'old world charm'... there was no history of cobbled streets in Yemen) The results of the above were seen in the rainy season, when flooding became an unexpected problem. Similar schemes may be witnessed all over the 'developing' world. In Syria I was interested to watch a young Swiss girl in charge of a public works team, assembled from the local unemployed. She was supervising the design and construction of a disabled access stairway for a medieval fortress of which the most distinctive feature was its extremely striking defensive front approach, consisting of a steep exposed stairway. It may be that they have compromised and bolted a lift onto the side of the building instead - but it struck me that she would not have been given the job of doing a similar thing to Chillon Castle in her home country.
The author of this book is a dedicated man who was unfamiliar with the way in which development organisations are run. He had assumed they would be managed by experts in the areas where they operated. Instead, he found the worst sort of corporate sub culture, where the dominant motivation was advancement within the introspective organisation concerned. Those employed in the field were largely untrained and inexperienced. They held relatively low level positions, and were subject to the self-serving whims of those in offices thousands of miles away. A culture of paperwork, naturally, was also in operation. Proposed projects and services were conjured up without reference to the areas and people they were intended for, and imposed from above. Local input was extremely limited, and local enthusiasm was nothing more than a desire to gain some of the money being expended.
The losers were those who never obtained the primary health care system the author was trying to set up, but those hard working and idealistic people who tried to create that system also lost. They were thwarted by incompetence and corruption, but also by the whole culture of the 'development' business. It seems that nothing has been learnt over the years since the East African 'groundnuts scheme' became both a joke and scandal in the 1940's.