Examining the Drivers of Change in Yemen - a presentation to Australian Government departments
DLP Researcher, Dr Sarah Phillips from the Centre for International Security Studies, University of Sydney, gave a thought-provoking and timely presentation on the 8 June 2011 in AusAID in Canberra, entitled “Examining the Drivers of Change in Yemen: Informal Institutions and Agency”. Speaking to an audience of AusAID staff and representatives from various government departments including the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade, and other guests, Dr Phillips provided a unique insight into the Yemeni regime’s opaque internal politics, and the nature of the patronage system entrenched by President Ali Abdullah Saleh over the past 32 years.
With Yemen in a state of political paralysis, and protests and violence continuing since President Saleh left the country for medical treatment after an attack on his compound earlier this month, Dr Phillips asked “how did it come to this?” In particular:
- Why have Yemen’s elites been so ineffective against the threats facing the state and the wellbeing of its citizens?
- Is this failure primarily attributable to individual leaders (agency) or have these leaders and elites been constrained by structural factors beyond their control?
- How can donors avoid reinforcing the problems that Yemen faces?
Dr Phillips’ in-depth political analysis revealed that President Saleh’s regime has thrived on volatility and crisis. The regime’s behaviour, while on the surface appearing irrational at times, demonstrates that there is money to be made from crisis and leverage to be gained from sustaining a threat to regional and international security by failing to address the position of ‘Al Qa’ida in the Arab Peninsula’ within the country. Underlying the volatility in Yemen is an informal and deeply patrimonial system of power within which Yemen’s elites operate. The system – at once highly complex and intentionally opaque – determines the distribution of resources and limits opportunities for the kinds of collective action necessary for developmental reform.
Yet, despite this, it seems that Western donors have continued to focus their efforts on supporting the formal governmental system in Yemen. Western donor policy, based on a belief that political instability is a function of government ineffectiveness and lack of capacity, has focused on stabilisation and quick, short term, technical fixes, failing to see that sustaining instability may be a deliberate strategy among the regime’s informal elites to maintain international support and, ultimately, to stay in power.
How, then, do donors effectively engage with the informal institutions and Yemen’s powerful ‘shadow regime’? How can donors address the perverse incentives offered by the informal, entrenched patrimonial system? Dr Phillips concluded by offering three ways in which donors can attempt to affect developmental change within Yemen:
- Stimulate economic development through investment in commercial incentives. Put pressure on the regime to reduce the government-imposed obstacles facing potential investors.
- Initiate a long term approach which facilitates rather than inhibits the space available for local actors seeking to bargain with the leadership. Donors need to devise innovative programs which do not prop up hollow state organisations but instead create space for the formation of coalitions which foster developmental change.
- Focus aid on areas, such as the governorate of Ta’izz, which have a robust history of commerce, entrepreneurship, education and/or spreading wealth beyond their communities. Rather than focusing development assistance rigidly on areas where al-Qa’ida has gained traction, donors could identify the key commercial players with an interest in a developmentally inclined system of governance.