Middle East


Economic Growth Fails To Reduce Poverty

Somali girls write their lessons during a class session in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp in Kharaz, Yemen. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

Surrounded by her five children wearing only tattered T-shirts, Sharifah Yousif, a 35-year-old Somali immigrant in Yemen speaks like a woman on a thwarted mission.

"We had thought that we would reach a heaven … but Yemen is a story of another sufferable journey," she said in a slightly quavering voice. "Yes, I had successfully fled from the war in Somalia … to face another war of poverty in Yemen."

Sharifah clutches her children tightly as she sits on a dusty roadside next to a popular market in the Yemen's capital Sana'a. Earning slightly less than $2 a day from washing cars, Sharifah can only pay her rent for a small room, and owns only two blankets, a pillow and a small carton containing her belongings. She entered Yemen illegally and arrived in Sana'a nearly two years ago. Her husband was killed two and a half years ago by war leaders in Mogadishu, Somalia.

For Sharifah, eating at a restaurant is a rare treat, because she only goes when invited by almsgivers who pay for her and her children. "I buy clothes only when absolutely necessary at cheap Yemeni-run shops, don't ever get to the doctor, and haven't had the money to return back Somalia," she said softly.

To someone living in one of the more impoverished countries in Africa, Sharifah would not look poor, yet she forms part of the 43 percent of Yemen's 18.5 million residents who live under the official poverty rate of $2 per day, according to the World Bank statistics. Despite 16 years of continuous economic growth since the reunification between north and south Yemen in 1990, the percentage of the poor has remained the same, and looks likely to go up.

"There are no signs of change for the time being in the Yemeni economy," said Mohamed Al-Quhali, a researcher with the state-run National Program for Fighting Poverty, which assists the poor. The growth in poverty has partly been based on factors such as the deregulation of the labor market, which creates temporary or unqualified jobs, said Al-Quhali. "The widespread corruption in the government's utilities is the main reason behind extreme poverty and unemployment."

The Yemen economy has been one of the slowest-growing in the Middle East in recent years, and is expected to stay at the same level until 2009, according to some local economic analysts.

Yemen, the ancestral home of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is predominantly rural, and faces enormous economic and social challenges. Among the major problems are limited access to basic services; a very high fertility rate (6.7 percent); high illiteracy rates, especially among females (73.5 percent); high unemployment (43 percent); significant gender inequality; gaps on a number of development indicators; and a non-renewable water supply, which is dwindling at an alarming rate.

"Unemployment and poverty mean not being able to participate in society, never being able to go to the movies or to buy a home," said political professor Abdullah Al Faqih of Sana'a University. Ninety percent of Yemeni families cannot afford a week of holidays outside the home annually, according to a study by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

Economic growth has mainly boosted company profits, while salaries have declined in real terms, according to the daily Yemen Times. Traditional families, which used to provide assistance to their less fortunate members, have also broken down since the 1990s.

At the same time, Yemen has received hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, who have fewer chances than Yemenis of accessing stable employment.

Extreme poverty is aggravated by a relatively weak social security system and the existence of a large underground economy that does not offer social protection to its employees. An estimated 5 million families live in slum-like conditions in Yemen, explained Al-Quhali, and some 200,000 people live on the street. In Sana'a, beggars give long speeches about their problems on streets and mosques, young ladies and elderly widows clad in black beg at restaurant entrances, and young men try to sell packets of paper handkerchiefs on the street.

The typical poor person is no longer just an elderly person, often a widowed housewife without an adequate pension. Nearly half of the homeless are now foreigners, according to government statistics. Thirteen percent of these persons have attained higher-level studies, and 11 percent have a job.

Natives whose appearances do not reveal them as being poor queue in front of charity eateries where they can get a free food meal in Sana'a.

"This can happen to anyone," said a homeless man named Ahmed Ali Qasim.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Mohamed Al-Azaki.