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Société civile, associations et pouvoir local au Yémen

Sarah Ben Nefissa
Maggy Grabundzija
Jean Lambert

Chapitre 3 : ONG et pouvoir local

Participatory Development and the Emergence of a Rural Civil Society

Helen Lackner

Entrées d'index

Note de l’auteur

I have greatly benefited from comments on an earlier draft of this paper from Linden Vincent, Michael Maguire, John Gittings and Fathia Bahran. Thanks to all of you.

Texte intégral


1Since the 1990’s development orthodoxy, as promoted by the major international bilateral and multilateral donors, has emphasised decentralization, privatization and the participation of beneficiaries in development activities. Previous Welfare State approaches have been regarded as expensive and inefficient, civil servants being often said to work little and cost much. The new approach is presented as a means of addressing the ‘inefficiency’ of direct support to government administrations which are widely described as opaque and expensive, it is also promoted as a means of improving governance, strengthening civil society and ‘empowering’ communities. (WB WDR 1997, WORK 2002 and others). The effectiveness of these approaches, their rationale, and underlying real objectives merit far more discussion.

  • 1 Community Based Organizations are Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) based in single locations, us (...)

2This orthodoxy and the imposition of blueprint approaches are challenged by many researchers. Among the themes which are currently undergoing critical debate is the view that there are core ‘design principles’ for successful Community Based Organizations (CBO’s)1; some analysts see institutions as developing more through ‘coping strategies’ and as shaped by wider dynamics at the political level and concerning access to resources (CLEAVER 1999). Writers (such as SENGUPTA 1977, LEACH & AL. 1999, COWARD 2004 and LEWIS 1991) show the importance of understanding existing mechanisms of interaction and of ‘corporate’ action in the anthropological sense of action by social groups in order to understand how community based institutions may already be working. Cleaver also insists on the need to understand the different existing social groups in a locality before initiating any new action, something which is particularly relevant and manifest in even superficial examination of rural water projects in Yemen in particular. Another major theme concerns the failure to consider the broader and extremely important issue of the interaction of the state at large with CBO’s (CHASE 2003, CORNWALL & GAVENTA 2000). A third point of debate concerns the failure to see local forms of participation and CBO’s in particular not only as potential operators for collective production and services institutions, but also as institutions able to engage in the development of larger-scale community ventures such as for example migrants raising and pooling income for irrigation schemes or roads.

3Among the beliefs underlying the promotion of CBO’s and participatory approaches at the community level is the fundamental assumption of communities being cohesive social units whose poverty and current problems can be attributed to a breakdown of the traditional management mechanisms which kept them in harmony. Although still widespread among development practitioners, this myth has been strongly challenged in recent years, for example by LEACH & AL. (1999) who points out that ‘gender, caste, wealth, age, origins and other aspects of social identity divide and crosscut so-called ‘community’ boundaries (…) Diverse and often conflicting values and resource priorities rather than shared beliefs and interests pervade social life and may be struggled and ‘bargained’ over’ (p. 230). New perspectives on these issues have not yet been fully integrated in the types of community development approaches implemented in Yemen.

4To what extent have donor policies contributed to the emergence of genuine and effective civil society institutions in Yemen? Are these new institutions weakening the State or do they fit in to existing or new state structures? (GAVENTA 2001, OSMAN 2001, JAIN 2002, BRAUMAN 2005 among others). What is the relationship between the new CBO’s and earlier community based movements, such as the Local Development Associations movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s in the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and similar solidarity organizations from migrants in various regions of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY)? What is the relationship between the new CBO’s/NGO’s and the emerging elected Local Government? To what extent can these new institutions be seen as empowering rural communities? To what extent are they instruments of ‘democratization’ of rural and tribal life? These and others are questions which require detailed research.

5This presentation makes no pretence at answering any of them, far more work is necessary. I am merely examining some of them in a bit more detail, on the basis of direct experience with rural communities throughout Yemen since the 1970’s. As a rural development sociologist, I have been involved as observer and participant in many projects throughout the country, and have attempted to understand the changes which have taken place in Yemen.

The emergence of new Community Based Organizations in the 1990’s.

6By the time of unification, CBO’s in the shape of Local Development Associations (LDA’s), had effectively ceased to operate in the YAR. Alongside the debate on local administration in the 1990’s, people throughout the country increasingly became aware of the fact that donors were interested in directly supporting community level initiatives through CBO’s. While this was presented at the international level as a means of promoting civil society and empowering communities, locally it was seen as a means to access funds and resources to finance social investments. These new possibilities for communities were relayed by the media and a number of embassies started ‘small embassy project’ initiatives. This led to the establishment of large numbers of local CBO’s of different types: their number mushroomed from a few hundred in the early 1990’s to almost 5000 registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2005; most of them are local ‘charitable associations’ with development activities as their primary listed objectives.

7While some of these institutions are very active, others are merely paper organizations awaiting funding from donors. This is clear and explicit: their office holders explain that the organization was established in anticipation of obtaining support for local projects and that seeking support is the main rationale for their existence, which will be activated when funding appears. Until that time, the CBO’s leadership seek such funding with varying degrees of determination.

8Other CBO’s more closely resemble the international definitions of civil society organizations, being composed of groups of people getting together with a common objective, such as environmental protection, or sporting activities. They raise funds among supporters of the same objectives through group activities [such as sports events, raffle ticket sales, and jumble/car boot sales] and from wealthy supporters as well as working towards these objectives on a voluntary basis due to their commitment. This type of organization is still quite rare in Yemen, and mainly found in the environmental and cultural sectors.

  • 2 Al Sinah is a hill top community between Taiz and Turbah which has, since the 1970’s, had an exempl (...)

9The most lasting and effective long-term CBO’s found in Yemen seem to be the direct heirs to the LDAs of the 1970’s and similar organizations in the PDRY and which focus their activities on development in their area. They can be seen as the main form of civil society organizations in rural areas as, while some have religious links, most of them are simply based on the overall population of the area concerned, and aim to improve living standards. They have various sources of funding, including in some areas, wealthy businessmen who support these organizations as a form of religious duty, they give them zakāt, i.e. the share of their income required by Islam, and these were originally intended to be for charitable activities, but easily and often extend into financing social development. These institutions also include some which started decades ago among migrant and home based communities to finance development investments in their home areas such as the one in Al Sinah in Taiz governorate2. Others have helped to maintain links between the migrant communities whose direct relations with their area of origin have become looser as they build generations of families in the host country and their visits home become less and less frequent. For example, a preliminary analysis of registered CBO’s in Abyan Governorate carried out in 2005 suggests that the most active ones have existed for decades and are primarily funded by emigrants and involved with building and running social infrastructures. They are connected to migrant groups residing in the UK since the 1950’s and 1960’s as well as others in Saudi Arabia.

The emergence of decentralized Local Government

10In Yemen, decentralization is a constitutional requirement, as well as being supported within the country by many civil society organizations, tribal leaders, public opinion in general and the opposition. Government has to balance on the one hand its interest in a strong central state able to control all parts of the country and on the other pressure from internal forces as well as powerful ‘donors’ to allow the emergence of strong local government institutions. The uneven distribution of the major natural resources [oil and gas] as well as structural social issues such as tribal power were among the issues which affected the debate. Decentralization is an issue in which there is clear convergence between civil society [be it tribal or more ‘traditionally’ defined], the political opposition and the donor community, though their aims and objectives are not necessarily the same. The outcome of this debate was the 2000 Local Administration Law.

11Donor strategies (CORNWALL & GAVENTA 2000, GAVENTA 2001, etc.) in recent decades have included beneficiary participation, decentralization, privatization and, more recently, the ‘human rights based development approach’. All have all been met with varying degrees of skepticism from Southern Governments, including that of Yemen. Despite the country’s poverty, donor influence on policy in Yemen is not as strong as it might be, but cannot be ignored by a State so short of resources and therefore so dependent on aid for its development efforts. As a result, the private sector and NGO’s have not achieved the importance donors had hoped, but have probably become more important actors than Government might have liked.

  • 3 While the authority of Sanaa was said to be restricted to Sanaa, Hodeida and Taiz during the early (...)

12Throughout the 1990’s, discussion focused on the mechanisms that would be introduced for decentralization and the extent of power which would be devolved to the governorate and district levels. This debate was intricately related to the process of unification, as there was a strong movement demanding more autonomy at the governorate level, including financial resources and allocations. Some supported unification on the basis of a largely federal state, giving a high level of autonomy to governorates, following a model more akin to that of the USA or Germany. Government resisted these demands and favoured the establishment of a strong centralized state. Given that the state was still in the process of trying to consolidate its authority throughout the country after the fragmentation of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, it is unsurprising that powerful decentralized institutions at the governorate or community level were not popular in Sanaa3. In the capital, unification was seen as a means of strengthening central government authority not only over the fractious areas bordering Saudi Arabia, but also as a means of addressing what it perceived as the uncertain loyalty of the southern governorates. The tensions between the GPC and the YSP in the first years of unification were largely related to the issue of who would run the country as a whole, and were, as we know, resolved in favour of the Sanaani regime.

13There are clearly different tendencies operating simultaneously and occasionally they converge. For example, CHASE (2003) asserts that the Yemeni state’s adoption of a human rights based development approach is ‘at least partly a strategy intended for external consumption with the aim of maximizing levels of assistance, but with the intent of internal implementation and fundamental policy open to question’ (p. 230) but continues to point out that this adoption may also be a strategy by the Yemeni State to address the demands of civil society and a good mechanism to co-opt forces within civil society. Much the same could also be said of the Yemeni State’s attitude towards the establishment and involvement of CBO’s in development activities.

14The elections which took place in 2001 produced elected Local Councils at the levels of both mudīriya and Governorate, whose social characteristics should be carefully studied to assess a number of issues which would indicate the extent to which they could be seen as a new form of democratic organizations or whether they are a mere formalization of existing power structure. Indicators which would help in such an assessment include the presence of women, young educated people and low status men in the councils. Analysis of the process and results of the second local elections in September 2006, will also allow initial assessment of evolution of these mechanisms. The implementation of decentralization and the issues it raises have been discussed in a number of studies and here as well (PYNDT 2005, OSMANI 2001, ALI & BAAS 2004). Among the issues which need to be addressed is the relationship between Local Government elected councils, civil service administrations and community based organizations.

International Financial Institutions funded projects, community organizations, and local government

15From the mid-1990’s onwards, International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and bilateral ‘donors’ were demanding direct participation of beneficiary communities in the implementation of activities and investments which they supported. This was at the expense of local branches of central government institutions. This policy was implemented throughout the country and in most sectors and was associated with beneficiary contribution to investment costs, to be followed by their contributions to running costs in the form of ‘cost recovery’ for services. The logic of this approach was a form of privatization, though in most places it involved community based organizations of a more or less sustainable type.

16The Social Fund for Development is a major institution which emerged from this policy and it has successfully mobilized large amounts of investment funds from a variety of bilateral and multilateral donors. While its methodology is evolving over time, the SFD approach has the following main features relevant to this analysis:

17Community consultation through Participatory Rural Appraisal methodologies to prioritize needs and decide on infrastructures to be built by the SFD.

18The formation of committees at the community level whose responsibility is to organize the beneficiaries to provide the contributions required for the construction of infrastructures; contributions required vary from 5% to 20% and are made either in cash or in kind, most frequently through the provision of stones for construction. Although these, or new, committees are intended to take responsibility for Operation and Maintenance of completed constructions this has, to date, largely been a paper responsibility and few of these committees actually operate successfully beyond the construction phase.

19Significant investment in capacity building for local institutions, through training in management and administration of the committee members as well as of the elected Local Council members.

  • 4 By rational, I mean based on factual features such as population density, accessibility of faciliti (...)

20From the point of view of donors, the SFD is a success. It has a number of features which fit in with their policies: participation of beneficiaries, ‘private sector’ contracts through transparent mechanisms with communities or with contractors, good cost-benefit ratios, rapid and transparent disbursement mechanisms. It is an institution which works on private sector models though, in effect, it could be described as a parastatal, avoidance of the government operational methodologies which are so unpopular with donors. Strongly supported by the World Bank, other multilaterals as well as various bilaterals, it is promoted as a model. However, regardless of its success, a number of questions arise among which: how sustainable is it? Is it becoming a substitute for line ministries, particularly when its involvement goes beyond construction of infrastructure? Is its existence weakening state institutions and ministries by, among other activities, absorbing the more talented staff? Is the demand-driven approach compatible with an overall rational4 distribution of limited investment resources? How do the community institutions it creates relate to those established by local government? How sustainable at the community level are the CBO’s it establishes? From our point of view here, an additional question is whether the committees established by the SFD can be considered to be genuine ‘civil society’ organizations?

21As well as many others, the World Bank and UNDP have also been involved in other community based approaches to development. Both have supported projects whose implementation mechanisms included the establishment of CBO’s either as capacity building measures (UNDPs Community Based Regional Development Programme, see ALI & BAAS 2004) or as the best means of ensuring sustainability of investments (WB with the Public Works Project, the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project, and of course the SFD and many others). For example, the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project requires the establishment of a formally registered Water Users’ Association before becoming involved with a community. So in Abyan,while CBO’s which are funded by the emigrants have now proved their sustainability and have been operating for decades, the latter are recent and their ability to operate on their own outside the framework of a project remains to be proven.

22The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is an IFI primarily concerned with rural poverty alleviation, has taken a slightly different approach to community organizations. All three of its currently operational projects rely on the establishment of CBO’s to assess community needs, and implement activities ranging from construction of social and economic infrastructures to the creation of producers and marketing groups.

23In the case of the al Mahara Rural Development Project (AMRDP), the project started with the establishment of community level committees about five years ago, and now, with the end of the project period in sight, project staff are helping the more effective and operational committees to become CBO’s registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs in the hope that with additional managerial and financial capacity, these organizations will be sustainable and able to continue helping the population in their area in their development ventures. The Dhamar Participatory Rural Development Project (DPRDP), which started more recently, is implementing an approach based on involving the communities in a detailed way at all levels of project implementation, starting with the preparation of participatory village development plans, and continuing with their involvement in implementation of all activities, monitoring of service provider performance, annual Monitoring and Evaluation meetings and capacity building of the community and producer groups to enable them to operate beyond the project period. Although this could be construed to be similar to ‘social engineering’ approaches which were popular a few decades ago, the main characteristic of the approach is to support the communities in their chosen and selected ventures, rather than imposing models on them. Community groups may, or may not, eventually form officially registered NGO’s, depending on their own perception of the need to do so.

24It is particularly interesting to note the relationships developed by the projects and the CBO’s with the elected Local Councils. The AMRDP was designed in the late 1990’s, prior to the Local Government Law and elections, while DPRDP was designed shortly after these elections. However, pragmatically or otherwise, both projects have developed very similar mechanisms to ensure good cooperation and address the demands of these new institutions. Neither is using them directly as substitutes for project initiated CBO’s, and both have established mechanisms for coordination with the Councils. Local elected councils and local administrations are not seen as substitutes for CBO’s for a number of reasons:

25First, the local councils are seen as partisan political institutions and the project target groups are defined on poverty criteria; once a community has been selected on poverty and participatory criteria, the project is involved with the community as a whole regardless of its politics.

26Second, in most cases the geographical and demographic areas of their respective responsibilities are very different. The projects work with smaller communities which may or may not coincide with administrative and electoral divisions, while the Local Councils by definition operate according to administrative divisions. A single council member may be responsible for an area either larger or smaller than a project ‘community’ or ‘village unit’.

27However, their importance is recognized and coordination with local administration is actively sought to ensure that there is no overlap in activities planning and that the investments of all parties are complementary rather than in competition. In the case of AMRDP, coordination is largely informal and there are cases where local council members are included in the project related committees. Although this is actually not allowed, according to the implementation regulations of the Local Government Law, participation of Councillors in development committees or in the leadership of local CBO’s is still fairly common. In the case of DPRDP, formal coordination committees are established in each mudiriya including project staff and representatives of both local elected councils and appointed local administrations. Their roles are also to ensure complementarity in planned activities, mobilizing support from the local authorities in solving problems, ensuring timely delivery of community contributions, involving the councils in providing additional support to communities, etc.

28While these mechanisms work, in some cases, very well, there is no doubt that there are fundamental tensions underlying this situation. These are basically focused on access to resources: the Local Councils and Local Government administrations would like to control more resources and often see a (comparatively) large foreign funded project as a major source of investment financing, indeed sometimes even of financing for running costs.


29In Yemen, there is as yet no widely accepted and clearly recognized definition of the respective roles of the State and civil society in rural development, particularly with respect to the provision of social services and infrastructures. A shortage of national and local budgetary funds means that, with the support and encouragement of the major international donors, Community Based Organizations in the Republic of Yemen have been encouraged, through the ideological concepts of ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’, to take on responsibilities for financing investments and operation of services which were previously considered to be the responsibility of the State both in the ‘socialist’ PDRY and the ‘capitalist’ YAR. As a result education and health facilities, let alone domestic water supplies, are often built by community groups with more or less direct financing from international agencies, through the mediation of institutions such as the SFD or projects, rather than the State. This has allowed the State to disengage to some extent from responsibilities which some would consider to be part of ‘nation-building’.

30This policy also provides an opportunity for the development of local initiatives, for individuals in the villages and settlements to form associations able to engage directly with State institutions and projects or ‘donors’ able to help them with development investments and assist them in improving their managerial and administrative capacities. Insofar as these CBO’s emerge from their communities and can be led by people who are not shaykhs or other traditional leaders, they can be said to represent the emergence of effective civil society organizations. However, it is essential for external partners, be they projects or other, to allow these institutions to develop, without attempting to imposing any blueprints on their mechanisms of organizations.

31Yemenis still expect services from the State and the concept of the Welfare state is still the basic aspiration of rural people, particularly due to Yemen’s physical proximity to the Gulf Oil exporting states which provide the ultimate form of welfare state to their citizens and where the concept is still considered the norm. In Mahra in particular, movement between the Gulf States and home are frequent and widespread among the population, including women; many families are more familiar with life in the UAE than with conditions in Sanaa, let alone other parts of Yemen, hence their expectations from the state are very high. We should also wonder whether relieving the state of its responsibilities for social services is an appropriate objective for civil society.

32Finally, in the case of rural CBO’s as well as all civil society institutions, the issue of their ability to pursue their own agenda is directly related to financial independence. Financing comes from those who have similar objectives and interests; there are few cases, if any, of an institution financing activities which go against its fundamental interests. Hence CBO/NGO search for external financing may well jeopardize their ability to pursue an entirely independent and self-defined agenda, and these organizations need to ask themselves why external agencies are willing to support them.


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1 Community Based Organizations are Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) based in single locations, usually villages or city quarters. They may or may not be officially recognised and are deemed to be representative of the entire population, regardless of class, status or wealth differentials. The uncritical use of this terminology allows practitioners to operate in a context which claims to be inclusive of the entire population, regardless of the power and other major divisions which exist within any ‘community’.

2 Al Sinah is a hill top community between Taiz and Turbah which has, since the 1970’s, had an exemplary community organization. It was established by migrants and villagers together with the aim of providing the village with basic social services. By the mid1990’s it had a complete and comprehensive water supply system based on wells in the valley on land purchased by the organization, and water was pumped to the village, with household distributions allowed only in houses which had built evacuation systems for used waters; it had electricity with high voltage wiring, schools and health centres. It presented a model which could have been followed by others. By the mid-1990’s problems arose due to the lowered income from migration and the need for replacement of some major equipment. Politicization of the organization and tensions arising from search for additional funds weakened the organization.

3 While the authority of Sanaa was said to be restricted to Sanaa, Hodeida and Taiz during the early 1970’s, by the time of Yemeni Unification, it can be said that the state in Sanaa’s controlled the entire country, though the eastern governorates of Jawf and Mareb still challenged its authority. To an increasingly lesser extent, there are still challenges to central authority in these areas today.

4 By rational, I mean based on factual features such as population density, accessibility of facilities, poverty levels, etc.

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