Falling economy leaves Yemenis struggling for basic necessities
After a hard day working outside in the burning sun, vegetable vendor Kahtan Al-Fakhri returns home with as little as seven dollars — not even enough to provide his seven daughters and wife with food for one day.
The lean 55-year-old said that his family eats only two meals a day, and their basic meal consists of bread and tea.I can’t sleep sometimes because of concerns about what I’m going to feed my family tomorrow,” he said. “My biggest concern is who is going to take care of my family if I die.”
Al-Fakhri rents a small, clay-built old house in one of Sana’a’s overpopulated neighborhoods for about $70 per month, an amount he finds very hard to pay his landlord on time.
Like Al-Fakhri, tens of thousands of Yemenis are suffering from extreme poverty, while the economy reels from a myriad of problems, including corruption. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate, which was already at 42 percent prior to the crisis in 2009, rose to 54.5 percent in 2012.
Yemen is the poorest Arab state, with more than half its population living on less than $2 a day. Earlier this year, international humanitarian agencies warned that more than half of Yemenis are food insecure, and that at least five million suffer from malnutrition and need urgent humanitarian aid.
Yemen’s economy faces daunting challenges, including soaring unemployment, rising living costs and an unstable monetary system. Widespread corruption remains the biggest obstacle hampering development and meaningful economic reforms in the country, say economists.
The former regime introduced some reforms in recent years and established governmental bodies to combat corruption. However, the reforms were either not implemented or delayed, while the anti-graft bodies lack any real power.
Mostafa Nasr, a political analyst and head of the Studies and Economic Media Center, said that that the main cause of the current widespread corruption in the country is the absence of political will to curb it. “The former regime supported corruption in an official way until it became a policy of governance,” he said. “It (the former regime) made the anti-corruption bodies ceremonial, without any real power or effect.”
According to Nasr, the former government established the anti-graft bodies in order to convince the international community it was serious in its economic reforms, and to use them as a tool to punish its political opponents.
Underscoring what Nasr said, a pre-retired accountant at the Central Organization for Control and Auditing (COCA), one of the main bodies charged with combating corruption, said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter: “When I first got this job, my colleagues and I were very serious about fighting corruption. We used to write reports about corrupt officials but were shocked when our reports were shelved and no action whatsoever was taken against them.
“Then we realized that we were only a tool that aims to portray the government as serious in combating corruption, when in fact it has no intention to eradicate or even curb it,” he said. “A group of us asked our manager to let us stay at home and save our efforts since our efforts always go with the wind, and he accepted our request.”
Now he has lost his interest in accountancy and has begun selling precious stones, he says.
Ali Saif, professor of Economics at Sana’a University, said he shares Nasr’s view that there is no real political will to curb vice and added, “The main reason for the widespread corruption was the lack of political balance in the country as there was no real opposition to stop the former ruling party.”
One of the biggest, recently exposed graft scandals of the former regime involves an agreement to sell Yemen’s natural gas to South Korea.
The former government signed a 20-year deal with the French company Total to sell Yemen’s gas at a fixed price of $3.20 per million BTU, a considerably lower price than the global market’s rate, effectively meaning an annual loss to Yemen’s economy of $2.8 billion.
According to Saif, the anti-graft bodies, especially the Supreme National Authority for Combating Corruption (SNACC), have begun to act independently since the fall of the former regime.
While Nasr and Saif agree that it is hard to judge the National Unity Government in light of the current challenges it faces and the harsh economic conditions it bequeathed from the former regime, others say its performance so far is very disappointing.
Mohammed Al-Absi, chairman of the Qarar Foundation for Media and Sustainable Development, said, “Unfortunately, so far the government has been following the same policies the former regime had applied. The National Unity Government’s performance is frustrating and disappointing. The new government have so far only replaced some officials, but they haven’t changed any of the previous policies.”
Al-Absi, who is also a well-known journalist, uncovered two months ago an allegedly corrupt deal signed secretly between a ministry and a company owned by a relative of high-level official of planning and international cooperation. The deal has been widely criticized.
Although he appeared keen not to attack the current government, Nasr criticized the allegedly deal, urging the new government to apply more transparency and not to follow in the footsteps of the former leadership.
Saif downplayed the issue, saying it was only a temporary deal to provide electricity for a short period, and voiced optimism that “there are signs that the current balance between the political forces will help to curb the rampant corruption in Yemen.”
“Establishing an independent and powerful judicial system, one that convicts all corrupt officials whether they are strong or weak, is key to curbing corruption,” said Al-Absi — an understanding that both Nasr and Saif shared.