Yemen? Yeah man

Yemen was in the news again today. When the country’s delegation got the news that that the EITI Board declared their country one of the six newest ‘EITI Compliant’ countries—indeed the first EITI Compliant country in the deeply troubled Middle East—they were ebullient. The Board’s decision means Yemen joins the “EITI elite”, the 11 of 35 implementing countries which have now met all the criteria for the global standard for transparency in their respective oil, gas and mining sectors.

When other conference participants heard of the Board’s decision however, reactions were distinctly different-- brows furrowed, jaws dropped and people traded looks of perplexity at the seemingly ironic, arguably ill-advised timing of the announcement. 

Global standard?  For transparency and governance?  Yemen .... ?  with thousands of Yemenis having joined the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world demanding their President of 30+ years resign. How can this be?  Had the Board caved in to political considerations?

Few of us would deny that Yemenis could use a bit of good news at the moment. Some observers may nonetheless accuse the EITI Board of shooting itself in the foot by declaring such an obviously non-democratic regime to have reached the global standard for governance in the extractives sector. Others may indulge in the age-old accusation that the Board—like so many other international organisations—has stooped to meddling in Yemen’s internal politics by declaring the country a verified practitioner of transparency in one of the country’s most important sectors.

People will be forgiven for concluding that politics drove the Board’s decision to grant Yemen compliant status. That would be a natural conclusion to make. But, in fact Yemen worked hard to turn their programme around and even harder to follow the EITI methodology and fulfil all the criteria to comply. This Board decision was not a gift. It was earned and Yemen’s reporting was studied and validated by international experts.

If we think about it, the only way the Board could be legitimately accused of “playing politics” is if it had denied Yemen and possibly other countries the compliance status that they have rightfully earned. What would the Board then have said to other candidate countries who have also worked for 2 years are working to catch up with Yemen and the other 10 compliant countries?  

Furthermore, the standard is not just a recognition of the efforts of government, but of companies and civil society as well. Yemeni civil society endorsed the report that recommended compliance. Indeed, the EITI process provided a rare opportunity for civil society to express its concerns openly.

The protests shaking Yemen place now and the decision in 2007 to launch EITI in Yemen evidences the fact that companies, civil society and government realised even then that Yemen needed improved governance. The seeds for transparent, quality governance were planted long ago.

We must remember too that EITI does not stop at compliance. As one panellist said today, “Transparency is not the goal by itself but a tool for development.”

The demonstrations now rocking the region have made it crystal clear that the people in resource rich countries will no longer tolerate cleptocratic, authoritarian leadership. Yemen has shown that even in some of the most difficult, least promising countries transparency is having an impact.   

Tim is an independent consultant and senior advisor to governments, NGOs and the private sector on stakeholder engagement strategies, advocay and media relations.  He helped write the EITI guide to communication, Talking Transparency and just returned from Tanzania where he prepared the TEITI communication strategy.