Yemen is much in the news at the moment – and the situation in the country is often portrayed rather negatively, or purely in terms of conflict. Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow interviewed Progressio’s on-the-ground representative there, Abeer Al-Absi, to find out how she sees the situation, and to discover how the strands of hope can be threaded together.
Starting with immediate events, some sort of peace was holding in Sanaa, but now fighting is flaring up again in southern Yemen. How do you see the current situation?
Yemen is a tribal society. Where individual loyalty to the tribe is important and most of Yemenis are well armed, this is something to expect. However, I think that with the Gulf countries and international actors putting pressure on the different parties, combined with calls for a peaceful transition from Yemeni youth, will help with stopping the fighting
Some international agencies and the Yemen Peace Project are warning of an upcoming food crisis. How do you maintain development priorities in such a changing situation, and what are Progressio's partners doing?
There are many INGOS and UN organisations working in emergency clusters [committees] and preparing responses to the most urgent needs.
For Progressio, our priority now is to continue our work building good governance together with our partner organisations. We believe that building the capacity of Yemeni NGOs to reach out themselves to the marginalised sections of the population, particularly the poor women, children, informal labour, and the rural and urban poor, in order to improve their socio-economic and political situation, remains very important work to eradicate poverty.
Furthermore, our work in strengthening the ability of people to participate themselves in local development is very important - it influences the policy and decisions of local and national governments in favour of those who are impoverished and marginalised
Finally, one of our priorities is to increase awareness of the use of the scarce water resources – to help communities cope with the very scarce water resources in Yemen. Right now, many Yemenis are facing increased water shortages due to the current instability.
Due to the current situation, most of Progressio’s international development workers have been temporarily evacuated, but we are continuing our work through our Yemeni partners , they have now the capacity and knowledge of how to implement the work themselves - this is one of the aims of Progressio’s work, to leave stronger national organisations that are not dependent on outside support.
Terms like 'failed state' are often used of Yemen. I know you object to such stereotypes. What is the message you would like the general media and commentators on immediate events to get about Yemen?
Yemen has the potential and resources for a better future: there are natural resources and human resources - most importantly the willingness of its young people (who are the leaders of the future) to develop their country and to build a new civil society.
My message is that the Yemeni people are peaceful and gentle and just dream of a civil society free of violence and poverty. Dreaming that they will be able to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. And seeking a civilised democratic country.
How is the current unrest affecting the poorest people, and also the work of international NGOs?
Shortages of gas, petrol and diesel have direct and indirect effects on poorer people. The price of gas has increased three times. Water scarcity in the capital Sana'a has made the price of a water tanker reach US$50 – many times higher than the normal price. Food prices have also increased due to the current crisis. Moreover many of the shops have closed down, and therefore a number of people have lost their jobs. The poor people who are working on daily-hire basis are suffering especially.
Women have been playing a key role in the process of change. Can you say more about this?
You can see women participating in both pro-change and government demos, raising their voice and opinions on how they think Yemen’s future should look. Also you can find them on TV debate programmes talking freely on different issues that affect their lives. Moreover, you can see that as leaders in the pro-change movements they are gaining a lot of trust. Of course this will strengthen women’s political participation amongst society and will promote positive concepts of gender in Yemen
What should the international community be doing to assist moves towards a better future in Yemen?
Essentially, supporting development programmes and technical help that have a high focus on youth and marginalised communities. Yemen needs the international community’s support and assistance right now.
What does 'civil society' mean in a Yemeni context, and how do you see is its role - actual and potential?
Yemen is at a critical phase of its democratisation process. Yemen’s current and future democratic stability largely depends upon being able to accommodate civil society organisations and citizen participation in overall sector specific policy development and institutional capacity strengthening to respond to the needs of poor and marginalised communities. I think the role of civil society now is to influence government policies and decision making in favour of poor and marginalised people .
What about the political process, good governance and democratic participation locally? What are the challenges and opportunities?
Government development initiatives have been less effective in bringing positive changes in the country’s development as a major portion of development funds are being channelled into responding to extremists and separatists who pose significant threats to the country’s security and stability.
A lack of capacity of local government and other ministries in effective policy formulation and programme planning and implementation means there is a failure to support the priority needs of the communities and vulnerable groups – this results in a growing lack of confidence in government and democracy. Further, local authorities at the district levels are less capable and [are] under-resourced to support community development needs.
In the absence of an effective civil society to influence government policies and decision in favour of poor and marginalised people, most of the government plans and programmes can end up without making lasting changes in the lives of people. Young people, especially young women, often do not have any legitimate participation in political decision-making processes, governance and civic bodies since the government policies and programmes fail to support their involvement. Deep-rooted cultural and traditional practices and beliefs undermine and discourage women from participating and opinion making in public spheres.
The opportunities now are the willingness to have reforms in the country in the context of building a new civil democratic country
HIV and AIDS are significant issues in Yemen. What is the situation, what is the response, and again - what can NGOs and other international actors do?
Regarding HIV and AIDS in Yemen: the short answer is ‘Low Prevalence but High Vulnerability’. Yemeni culture is strongly influenced by Islamic religious teaching and pre- and extra-marital sexual activities are considered forbidden. However, in reality due to cultural transformation, migration, urbanisation and media exposure, the way of thinking and way of living is changing very fast in Yemen, which is leading to the practice of unsafe sex, both outside and within marriage.
HIV and AIDS being taboo in Yemeni society, there is often an attitude of denial, a culture of silence, myths & misconceptions and stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS. There is a set of socio-economic and cultural factors, such as poverty, tourism and forced marriage, rural to urban migration, the situation of refugees from neighbouring countries, the influence of media, and changes in lifestyle among young people. At the same time there is poor infrastructure and capacity for counselling and testing, [for] the management of sexually transmitted diseases and awareness raising among hard to reach and vulnerable groups. All these are combining to make Yemeni people vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.
Currently, Progressio is implementing a four-year HIV and AIDS project funded by the European Union with the aim of strengthening the capacity of local civil society organisations to combat HIV in Yemen and to ensure better support to people infected and affected by HIV.
The project is targeting over 10,000 people at risk as direct beneficiaries and 50,000 indirect beneficiaries through civil society organisations, Associations of People Living with HIV , faith leaders (imams and Murshidats - female religious leaders), and organisations for particularly vulnerable groups, such as sex workers and vulnerable women, fishermen, youth, and refugee communities. Progressio is implementing the project with three local partners; Interaction in Development Foundation (IDF) in Sana’a, Women Association for Sustainable Development (WASD) in Aden, and Abu Musa Al-Ashari in Hodeidah
Still, there is a lot for NGOs and other international actors to do in supporting people living with HIV at individual as well as organisational level. Presently there are organisations of people living with HIV at national and regional level; they are organised to advocate for the rights and well being of people affected by HIV.
You have seen the fighting first hand. What is your personal sense about where things are heading in this period of uncertainty? What keeps you hopeful?
Of course I was frustrated. No-one wants the violence and we all want a peaceful change. For me, I think Yemenis will overcome this uncertain period as they have stepped back from the clashes that might lead towards a civil war. What keeps me hopeful is the willingness of the Yemeni youth for peaceful change and they are mature enough to overcome the current challenge.
© Abeer Al-Absi is Progressio’s country representative in Yemen. Progressio (formerly the Catholic Institute for International Relations) is a UK-based NGO working internationally to help people gain power over their lives and overcome barriers that keep them poor. For further information see www.progressio.org.uk  and visit the Yemen country profile here: http://www.progressio.org.uk/content/yemen 
* More on Yemen from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/yemen 
* More on Progressio from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/progressio