Guest Post: Yemen and Foreign Aid

Today the Friends of Yemen met in Riyadh.  One of the key issues, as it often is at these meetings, is that of foreign aid.

Several days ago a group of Yemeni students gathered to debate exactly the topic of Foreign Aid and whether it is causing more harm than good. 

The organizer of that debate, Ibrahim Mothana, sent out a follow-up e-mail to that debate, which he kindly agreed to allow to be posted here to Waq al-waq as a guest post. 

(As always with guest posts, I don't necessarily endorse the views expressed, but I believe them to be an important perspective that deserves consideration.)

Ibrahim Mothana: 23-year-old activist, writer and Yemen's 2011 Arab Thought Foundation Ambassador. Co-founder of Watan Party & Yemen Enlightenment Debate

You can also follow him on twitter @imothanaYemen

Here is a video of the original debate, which was conducted in English.  It is just over 50 minutes long and I encourage you all to watch it.

And the following is Ibrahim's guest post:

First, I will start with addressing a disappointment many people had with the title of the debate and the intense arguments during it. Well, I must say that the role of debates is always to provoke and help people get out of their comfort zones and think in a way they would've not have without attending/watching the debate.

Perhaps, It would've been a much lovelier discussion if the title was "Can Foreign Aid Cause some Harm?" and we remained stuck to our routine diplomatic maneuvers but that wouldn’t have been a debate nor what we wanted to do.

Going back to our debate topic, I would like to simply restate the fundamental ground of my argument: NGOs are not sacred neither we are therefore we should step back from time to time to assess both our success and failures to find better effective ways to deal with our ultra complicated problems and imperfections. When we emphasized that "Foreign Aid Caused More Harm than Good" it was clear from our arguments that we didn't call for stopping aid but rather for developing our institutions and modules to reach a point where "Foreign Aid Cause More Good than Harm"

The reason I organized the debate is because I have always been disgusted with the amount of hypocrisy that exist in the aid circles on different levels. And of course all aid is not in one category as well as the different approaches.

I am somewhat skeptical of the US aid because of its largely ineffective militaristic nature.  I think the EU is doing a better job. I must say, however that Yemen is getting even worse from the Saudi/Iranian/Qatari politically and ideologically motivated aid in a growing national and regional tension.

Anyhow, I truly believe that there are a lot of amazing well intentioned people working with AfD, DFID, GIZ, US Aid and other development agencies and these exceptional efforts can be channeled into a much better system that compares to the mostly effect-less donor-resource consumption we have been experiencing for ages. As many rightly suggested, there should be some sort of conditions enforced on the government to guarantee a better results from donors.

Nevertheless, what is most important is to enforce conditions on the Yemeni NGOs and stakeholders getting the grants.  By that I don't mean to set the issues and priorities that they have to work on as is wrongly done in many cases, but rather to enhance the monitoring and assessments processes to ensure a better concrete outcomes of the process.

Moreover, generally aid is extremely Sana'a-centric and other than Aden and few other major cities, it tends to be invisible in other areas that desperately need it. Hence a small circle of elite was created who can obviously be noticed in their "aid-lords" status highly profiting from this recourse/risk-less "business".

Government aid corruption is an issue that is pointed out every day in the media and in our continuous political discussions. Unfortunately, this is not the case with NGO corruption because those who are controlling the NGO sector are in many cases the faces of Yemeni media and many journalists work partially with organizations and enjoy endless benefits for writing inflated press releases on how amazing these NGOs are.

Democracy, rule of law, development, sustainability and all the values NGOs unfortunately bring in an empty rhetoric templates vanishes as soon as the per-diem is distributed and that simply explains why the 9000+ NGOs that have opened in the past couple of decades are inactive at the moment, you don't have to be a genius to know that they existed because of the aid not the cause!  

These organizations didn't spend any effort whatsoever to make these noble values relevant, localized and meaningful in the minds of their target constituency. I am politically secular and religiously  nonsectarian therefore I am not arguing based on a ideological bias against this group or that but because I know that a term like "Democracy" cannot be consumed in a fast food manner without relating to strong moral grounds and hundreds of years of evolving process that it brings with, otherwise this awareness creation process turns into spreading the value of what I like to call "Perdiemocracy" not "Democracy".

Many Arab contemporary philosophers spent decades studying and lecturing in European universities like Arkon, Nasr Abo Zayed, Al-Jaberi and many others have done an amazing job in building bridges between the values of enlightenment and the beliefs of people in the Arab world in an attempt to ease the modernization process of such societies.

For instance, Mohamed Al-Jaberi's who we just passed his second death anniversary few weeks ago was an extraordinary philosopher who wrote many books including the 3 volumes Critique de la Raison Arabe and Pour une Vision Progressiste de nos Difficultés Intellectuelles et Éducatives which concretely yet beautifully establish a roadmap for modernization and democratization based on the eastern/Islamic values in our countries.

Anyway, none of the multi-million dollar funded NGOs spent any effort whatsoever to dig a bit deeper and try to really build a profound and solid bases for a democratic society that is understandable and makes more sense outside their elitist circle. Such circles didn’t do quite much other than enjoying the hoppy of addressing the society from its ivory towers with a great deal of superiority and arrogance.

I personally have never lived outside Yemen and the longest period I have spent abroad has been once for 6 months.   Nevertheless I don't need to be "democratically baptized" by living abroad or attending this capacity building course or that to have a firm believe in democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and other values we desperately need in our societies.

I rather (like many others) built my own set of values and believes that doesn't clash with the existing moral grounds of the majority of people here in Yemen and that makes much more sense to me than talking in what seemingly decoded words about the values I mentioned.

Furthermore, a recently raising NGO trend in Yemen is dealing with the vitally important issue of implementing the rule of law. Nevertheless it’s interesting how many organizations (national and international) act as if they are dealing with a blank slate while having a goal of building a state irrespective of what existed before in their targeted regions. They view existing traditional platforms as anachronistic and in need of an absolute deconstruction.

Personally speaking, that doesn’t make any sense simply because the only institutions that tend to be viewed as legitimate and effective in many post-conflict and developing contexts like Yemen are those informal institutions with traditional structures.

A term like the rule of law carries a great deal of importance and relevance philosophically and filtering it through superficial programs and misapplications will get us nowhere close to implementing the philosophical values and concrete outcomes that underlies it. Rule of law implementation progress by using reconciliatory mechanisms and developing it to benefit from the existing community practices, commonly used laws and informal justice. 

Therefore considering the country’s historical legal development, local concepts of rule of law and the existing situation; all need to fit together in order to create a comprehensive judicial system that's accountable and accessible to everybody.

To sum it up, the current situation of international aid in Yemen reminds me of Hans Christian Anderson smart story of the naked emperor, or what he named "The Emperor's New Clothes" and to put it in a Yemeni context we can name it “The NGO's New Projects" :). Here is a brief plot of Anderson's story:

"A vain Emperor who cares for nothing but his appearance and attire hires two tailors who are really swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "just hopelessly stupid". The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense. Suddenly, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others." 

People are afraid of criticizing donors especially if their interest is deeply entrenched with their aid. Corruption in the civil society in Yemen is like the pink elephant in the room, everyone recognize it and talk about on a personal level but no one mentions it publicly as if it doesn’t exist.

And it's a two side consensus, I was utterly surprised when a friend sent me a message before the debate saying, and I quote: " Several people linked to the international community were complaining about the subject of the debate - they were saying Yemen needs aid now, this is the wrong time for the youth to raise this issue, it will offend the donors". 

And although my friends was extremely supportive, it was interesting that whoever made the comments made his final judgment without even bothering to know our arguments. This is the kind of superiority contributed to misunderstanding the situation in Yemen.

That was a perfect example for not practicing what you preach because we didn't have a propaganda campaign but rather a DEBATE or also the side arguing for foreign Aid consist of highly qualified and remarkable youth.

The event took place in an embassy where probably 90% of the audience was initially against our motion and we didn't prevent them from talking or voting one way. Anyway, surprisingly, there was a huge shift of votes to our side after the debate ended up winning the motion of the debate. I was happy about that because it proved my point about how people desperately need to step back a bit and listen to a different perspective frequently to polish their reasoning abilities and sound judgment skills.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.