Models of governance, conflict resolution and micro-credit schemes that have been used elsewhere will be applied to Yemen with little consideration of how well they fit into Yemen’s social and economic environment. While immediate humanitarian relief may assist a harried population, the rebuilding efforts could easily damage the fabric of Yemeni society, thus completing the destruction begun by the combined efforts of former Yemeni president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, and the Saudi-led bombing campaign that began on March 26.
Although Yemen is economically the poorest country in the Middle East, it may be the wealthiest in social capital. Yemen’s limited experience with colonialism has left largely intact important tribal institutions that still prioritise mediation, egalitarian ethics, cooperation and respect for women, all of which can be effectively harnessed in rebuilding and crafting a democratic nation.
The vast majority of Yemen’s rural population, and a growing number of its urban population, self-identifies as tribal (qabayil). Yemeni tribes are territorial units organised into subunits, each with its own elected leader. They are best described as civil society organisations capable of mobilising groups of varying size to serve community needs. Schools, mosques and feeder roads to villages are all constructed to be affordable to the communities by mobilising local labour.
Tribal politics: conflict or cooperation?
I heard a wonderful example of tribal cooperation at a meeting at Oxfam, Sanaa in 2004. Wanting to build a health center in an under-served rural community, Oxfam staff offered the community a proposal for a micro-credit scheme to raise capital for the project. When these plans were rejected, the disappointed development agents left, saying they would return in a month. On their return they found a health center built and awaiting staff to be supplied by Oxfam. Such stories abound throughout Yemen. By listening to the concerns of local people, similar organisational principles can be applied to postwar rebuilding of Yemeni communities.
Another important form of social capital has supported Yemen’s beleaguered justice system by maintaining security in rural areas. This is customary law, a sophisticated legal system based on mediation and restitution, with a focus on due process. Physical aggression is not tolerated, even among children. Non-confrontational ways of expressing differences and protesting injustice are institutionalised in Yemeni society. These include the use of pithy rhyming phrases that synthesise the protester’s position and invite a similar considered response from his or her adversary.
The gender perspective: Yemeni respect for women
The demonstrations of 2011 showed the extent to which tribal principles of cooperation, egalitarianism, due process and respect for women have permeated all levels of Yemeni society. Women were highly visible leaders and participants, as protesters from diverse groups and parties worked together. Yet Yemen’s tribal heritage is under threat. Tribal rules have broken down over the past 10-15 years in response to feuding and warfare in the north and to the extent that corruption and government co-optation of major tribal leaders have reduced their accountability to their constituents. Other threats include an imported, often externally funded, politicised Islam that perceives tribal heterogeneity, flexibility and reliance on consensus as divisive and the mobility of rural women as unacceptable. Ironically, Islamist views are perceived as ‘modern’ by young tribal Yemenis because they differ from local traditions.
Understanding rural society in Yemen
Experience elsewhere has shown the common practice of contracting relief work to external actors to be unsustainable, often leading to corruption and violence. The alternative is to contract local organisations staffed by Yemeni nationals familiar with the customs and concerns of the affected communities. Only with their input can sustainable models of national development be devised. The spirit and institutions that have provided Yemeni society with its extraordinary resilience can continue to do so if harnessed towards goals of rebuilding that all share.
[more_info_box] Insight on Conflict will soon be launching a new section on Yemen, with updates and profiles of local peacebuilding work in the country. Check back to find out more.[/more_info_box]