Published on Arab Voices

Working in fragile states like Yemen is for more than salmon fishing

The other day I was in a car going to a meeting with Yemen’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation.  A car bomb exploded less than 500 meters from our location, targeting the Minister of Defense.  The minister escaped but 12 people were killed and many more were injured.

Two days later, I was planning to go to a pool-side party at the American Embassy; for relaxation this time. Again, I was lucky. The party was scheduled for 2:00 pm, and the demonstrators that broke into the Embassy arrived at 11:00 am. The planned party was, naturally, cancelled.

These are only some examples of events that we face in a fragile and conflict-affected state. These are the big ones, and they do not happen very often (at least not in Sana’a), but when they do, they remind us of the environment we work in.

The World Bank group re-opened its temporary office in the Movenpick Hotel in January 2012, after the signing of the GCC brokered agreement between the ruling party and the opposition. In addition to around 30 Yemeni staff, there are three international staff now based in Sana’a. The latter include me, in the role of country Manager, the head of the International Finance Corporation’s office and our security advisor.   The old office was closed and the staff was evacuated to Amman in March 2011 at the height of the civil unrest and military/tribal conflict.  Since January 2012, we have lived and worked at the Movenpick Hotel. Our movement is restricted and we limit travel to essential missions only.

In the face of all these restrictions, we reopened the program, lifted the suspension on disbursements, and helped the government undertake an extensive social and economic assessment of the aftermath of the crisis. The Bank also organized and co-chaired the donor conference in Riyadh, where US$6.4 billion was pledged to Yemen. An additional US$1.5 Billion was added in New York in late September, bringing total pledges to nearly US$ 8 billion; enough to support the political transition and reconstruction process over the next three years. We also led the work on the preparation of a Mutual Accountability Framework, a unique document that spells out the responsibilities of both the government, in moving ahead with reforms that respond to the demands of the revolution, and donors in supporting those reforms by the timely fulfillment of their pledges.

I spend a lot of time with my international colleagues, as none of us have any family here to go home to. One night, over dinner at the Movenpick – the only place we ever have dinner – the three of us discussed the things we missed most. Here is the list of the top 10:

SmilieNo taking your kids to the soccer game or baseball game

No going out to restaurants/bars

No walking in the streets..Day or night

No meeting friends for coffee over the weekend

No biking/running on Saturday mornings

No movie/theater on a Friday evening

No emergency late night visits to the store to grab that yummy ice cream

No taking a day trip to Annapolis or Baltimore

No picking up your brother/a friend from the airport who is visiting you for a few days

No Salmon Fishing in Yemen

There is no doubt that living in a fragile and conflict-affected state can be very difficult but I truly feel this is the most fulfilling part of my professional career. Ultimately, the difficulties we face pale in comparison to the challenges many Yemenis must overcome everyday to simply feed their families. This is before they even contemplate the task of building a more just and inclusive society. We have the opportunity of helping to address immediate needs, as well as creating the conditions that will give the transition process the best chance at success. This is a great privilege and we are committed to doing everything we can to make full use of this opportunity.

We make every effort to ensure the work we do and the impact we achieve on the ground reaches every family and every home. Our programs currently put hundreds of thousands of Yemenis to work, enable the vaccination of hundreds of thousands of children, help educate millions of boys and girls, and provide basic services such as clean water to millions. We are also working with the government to construct a solid foundation for the policy reforms necessary to put the economy on the right track for recovery. The Bank also plays an important role in leading the international community, harmonizing international support, and achieving consensus on critical decisions.  

Most everyone in Yemen now recognizes that the success of the political process will depend on   progress in the economic recovery that directly improves the lives of all citizens.  Along with building schools, hospitals and roads, we are laying the foundations for peace and stability. This will guarantee a better future not only for the Yemeni people, but also for the region and the World.

When I consider why we’re here, and what we’ve achieved, I don’t miss the ice cream so much.                                                                                                                             


Wael Zakout

Senior Technical Advisor and Global Lead, Land Policy and Geospatial

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