A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
The term ‘civil society’ is now very common among politicians, social scientists and intellectuals, and is part of government and other political parties rhetoric. It has also made its way to the international scene, specifically in development programs, where international or regional organizations have sprung up. This is because civil society organizations (CSO) are in some form a representation of democracy. Definitions of the term civil society vary depending on viewpoints based on their role towards society, local government and international players.
The classical definition of civil society is a group of organized individuals aiming to champion a certain cause. In other words, every group which convenes in order to make change; but this definition is very broad and vague, and therefore inadequate. It’s not correct to say that civil society is a communion of volunteers engaging in civil work, because many organizations alter social behavior. When these organizations start to create a moral code, it usually revolves around democratic values. Hence, the general meaning of CSOs is vaguely connected to social volunteers, special interest groups who continuously fight for special rights and issues, requiring them to work with the government and other social actors.
Photo Courtesy of Ahmed Shihab al-Qadi
Civil society in post-colonial and developing countries was created in circumstances different to those in European countries. The contrast is evident as CSOs in countries such as Yemen are hindered by key local social entities, like government, tribes, political parties and religious sects. This, combined with lack of resources and reliance on international donors, creates a very difficult environment for CSOs to fulfill their goals, particularly in countries undergoing political transition or war.
Colonial and socialism eras
Social organizations began emerging in the cosmopolitan city of Aden in the 1920s and 1930s. International events helped increase their numbers, mostly after World War II and the emergence of international organizations, such as the United Nations, and the establishment of world super powers. Regionally, many nationalistic organizations appeared in countries that were under colonial rule.
CSOs focused on education and school building during the 1920s and 1930s. During the 1940s, activities shifted to supporting adolescents and social and local development. In the 1950s activities were expanded to include political and union rights, though women’s rights only became of interest in the 1960s, when the first women’s organization was created in Aden, The Arab Women Organization.
During colonial times, Aden witnessed the establishment of many social clubs, including Arab Literature Club (1924), Aboutaib al-Mutanabi Club (1939) and the Arab Islamic Reform Club (1929). These clubs created a platform for information dissemination at a time when radio and written media were insufficient. Writers and intellectuals from Aden and its neighboring cities would convene in these clubs, have debates, and exchange ideas on politics, literature and philosophy. Some of these notable intellectual pioneers were Mohamed Abdo Ghanem, Lutfi Aman, Ali Mohamed Luqman, the al-Asnaj family, Mohamed Saed Jarada, Hamed Khalifa, Fada’ak, al-Zubairy, al-Hakimi and the Hadrami writer Ali Ahmed Bakatheer. At the time, an Adeni organization called Aden for Adenies managed to lobby for Adenies to be posted in managerial positions in police stations, at the harbor, and in the oil refinery. Throughout the 1950s, these organizations played an immense role in raising national awareness on the colonial occupation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the process of creating CSOs became very difficult in both south and north Yemen, although the political ideologies of both regimes differed significantly. In the south all organizations were intimately entwined with the Yemeni Socialist Party ideology. In the north, continuous political changes were catastrophic to organizations created during the late Yemeni President Ibrahim al-Hamdi’s reign, known for stability and development. Only charities and cultural organizations were operating during that time, like the Novelist and Writers Union created in the early 1970s by individuals from both north and south.
After the unification and establishment of the Yemeni Republic in 1990, the constitution protected organizational rights, autonomy and independence for CSOs, creating a safe space for them to operate freely. Since then, the number of CSOs surged in Aden. Academic unions, human rights organizations, vocational clubs and environmental protection organizations grew to reach 780 in Aden, according to Esam Omar Wadi, Director of Organizations in the Labor and Social Affairs Office.
Photo Courtesy of Ahmed Shihab al-Qadi
Civil society in Aden: Achievements and failures
Viewpoints differ, after the 2015 war, on CSOs’ role in development. Some consider them partners in raising awareness on current social issues, and others consider them dangerous to social stability and disruptive to the culture because of their western values. CSO managers are sometimes accused of creating these organizations for personal gain, with no real help reaching communities. Yemeni academics and specialists believe local CSOs are ineffective in tackling issues like religious radicalism and terrorism, which are now on the rise in many Yemeni governorates. Therefore, CSOs are not fulfilling their roles as the fifth branch, helping the government’s four branches in tackling current problems. This issue could be a structural or managerial problem for organizations, or the citizens understanding of CSOs’ role in the humanitarian, rights and development fields. Although this is an ongoing debate, there are success stories and failures due to many circumstances.
One of the success stories was a campaign created by some CSOs and Adeni citizens, under the banners ‘Together in stopping the privatization of Aden’s public spaces’ and ‘Together in protecting Aden’s historical, pre-historical, and natural landmarks’. This campaign successfully kept the beach between Mercure Hotel and Aden Mall, a public domain since it is the last natural open space within Aden’s historical old city borders.
In January 2017, the demolition and reconstruction of al-Hamed Mosque in Aden’s old city was controversial among activists and CSOs who campaigned against this, because the mosque wasn’t in need of renovation nor was it a safety hazard for prayers. Although, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Antiquities Authority Office made interventions, and there was a civil society outcry, al-Hamed Mosque’s Imam went through with the project in the presence of heavily armed men who didn’t allow people to take pictures.
CSOs, chiefly Sawasia organization, headed by Hiba Aydaros, and the Yemeni Organization for History and Artifacts, headed by Dr. Asmahan al-Alas, objected to such behavior. This reconstruction campaign has been ongoing for years; some benefactors purposely demolish old architecturally unique buildings and reconstruct them as modern concrete structures, without considering their historical value. They justify such behavior by attributing it to expansion or renovation plans. Another example of this recurring issue is the Aban Ibn Othman Ibn Affan Mosque; when Hayel Saed Foundation reconstructed the mosque, its identity was lost forever. There were also changes to the Hashimi Shiek Mosque in Shiek Othman neighborhood, which had a Sufi corner demolished in 1994 and turned into shops.
Huda al-Sirary, a lawyer, said: “There are persistent efforts by some active organizations hoping to raise awareness and put an end to this meddling with Aden’s historical landmarks, including al-Hamed Mosque. In the face of some opportunistic individuals and groups who are taking advantage of the chaos, these organizations came forward and sent letters to Aden’s local counsel, who in response gave clear orders restricting any interventions on historical landmarks without permits. However, sadly some individuals and entities violated those orders.”
In a petition, Dr. al-Alas declared, “Civil society organizations will not stop protesting as long as there are plans with the local authority to demolish Shiek Otham market, and sell the Municipality Hospital, al-Hatari Mosque and a number of schools and old colonial government buildings. People have already meddled with the Buhra Mosque, the Persian Temple, Jewish Synagogue, and the Wardens house, which was turned into a laundromat, the prison gate, Aden’s schools, Albss Center for Women, Sera Island, Sahareej Aden, Seven Doroob, Aden Hill, and many other historical landmarks”.
Photo Courtesy of Ahmed Shihab al-Qadi
Foundational shortcomings and development recommendations
The return of Aden’s judiciary will limit these intrusive violations facing Aden and its inhabitants on daily basis. Aden’s CSOs’ suffer some shortcomings: firstly, the lack of communication with a strong judiciary system; and secondly, the lack of information sharing between different CSOs in the absence of an active network. Other problems concern misunderstanding the network’s role, staff managerial issues, lack of financial experience, and an inability to keep experienced staff. Furthermore, low wages and inconsistency of grants received makes a difference. Weakness in monitoring and evaluating local governments competence are among the issues affecting organizations, especially the ones created during the 2015 war. While civil work is a broad space and deals with diversity in many aspects, CSOs must avoid misinterpretation of their roles and goals. Focus on the humanitarian crisis facing Aden, in the form of human rights violations before and after the war, is scarce.
A strong foundation for CSOs has become a necessity. The situation in Aden is deteriorating in all aspects of life, whether it is private or public sectors or the economy. CSOs’ interventions aren’t tangible in Aden at the moment; consequently, here are some recommendations that could help them in creating a vision and mission in Yemen:
● Building their organizational capacity and hiring based on qualifications and merit.
● Diversifying grants according to laws that uphold transparency.
● Entrenching solid communication between CSOs and all stakeholders.
● Encouraging volunteer work through media and building youth capacity.
● Creating a network between CSOs in order to have room for communication and cooperation.