Community-Based Initiatives and Public Services Delivery in a Fragile Context: The Case of Yemen

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Moosa Elayah, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar.

With increasing incidence of high-intensity armed conflict around the world, massive and subversive effects on governance systems have resulted, leading to escalated socio-economic vulnerability, food insecurity, commodity dependence, and lack of access to justice for members of civil society. When government authority and legitimacy rapidly decline in the midst of protracted crises, how can civilians access public services? My study (with Nesmah Al-Sameai, Hiba Khodr, andSamah Gamar) looks at how community-based initiatives (CBIs) in fragile states and conflict zones work to overcome state failure to deliver critical and urgent social and economic services through a self-organized, community-based collective. We base our study on the case of Yemen, where hostilities and civil strife collapsed the central government – leaving a huge a void in public service provision. We asked ourselves: ‘In situations of deteriorating government authority and exacerbated humanitarian catastrophe, how can civil society self-organize and play a role in providing essential services to the community?’ 

Whereas in non-fragile states, CBIs operate with public-funds as part of a new paradigm commonly referred to as New Public Governance, serving as an enactment of active citizenry and inter-organizational collaboration to address complex social problems while seeking service efficiency and quality, our exploration focuses on how CBIs operate when a state entirely fails to provide essential public services due to conflict.

What we did…

What are the alternatives for state failure in serving the needs of civilians is a question our study answers through a qualitative approach in which two data collection methods are employed: The first – in-depth and open-ended semi-structured interviews collected over a three-month period – and the second, an extensive document analysis based on a review of public-domain reports, policy notes, and credible social/media sources. Our goal was to look at (a) the failure of public service provision in Yemen, by way of establishing a diagnostic or baseline from which to study the emergence of CBIs, which led us to a heightened curiosity of (b) the impetus for and governance structure of community-based initiatives, and (c) the factors that enable such a framework to maintain sustainability in meeting local civilian needs.              

Our primary data, solicited through thirteen semi-structured interviews, was collected from staff of local and international NGOs who worked on CBI funding projects (38%), representatives of Yemeni CBIs – including those who directly work with CBIs or have contributed to the establishment of a CBI (69%), as well as academics and researchers from think tanks (30%). Some of the participants had diverse cross-over past experience working as journalists, community activists and local field workers. Not surprisingly, given the heightened and violent nature of the conflict, we experienced a security nightmare and logistical barriers challenged our ability to access key informants. Though we strove for a larger sample size, it was untenable. Nevertheless, since we had a rigorous recruitment process that resulted in interviewing individuals whose expertise and experience were directly relevant, we consider the sample size in our study to be adequate and sufficient to uncover a variety of insights and to attain saturation.

What we Found…

Results from the interviews put into plainer view the inequity, corruption, and in certain regions – the utter breakdown – of public service provision in Yemen.  Our informants shared with us their experiences and observations that ranged from sudden, abrupt transfer of power to de facto entities and new capital centers which were often fragmented, to loss of access to basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, transportation routes, and internet, to bleak confusion on reporting and policy/procedural guidelines on such critical matters as tax collection and distribution. Interestingly, we find in this component of the study that whereas some oppositional forces, such as the Houthi stronghold, had succeeded in establishing replacement systems for the distribution of goods and the delivery of services, respondents noted that these were largely unbeknownst to average civilians.

Our intuition was confirmed as it related to the main driving force for the establishment of CBIs – in that informants unanimously agreed that there was strong evidence of community resilience and a communal sense of self-sustenance and recovery propelling them to support local citizen-led projects – despite the obvious challenge of filling an onerous public service gap. A strong local volunteer base and the collection of charitable funds led to critical transport, water, and schooling provision in a number of governates, leaving little doubt that local mobilization of citizens could take place in the context of a fragile state.    

As our findings note, interviewees with local and international NGOs believed that working with CBIs lead to projects that are more responsive to local needs and could lead to the reduction in costs of operationalizing public programs in areas of armed conflict. While in fragile state settings community approaches encourage societies to define their priorities, stable and conflict states that still maintain a form of state or non-governmental organizations seek to mobilize local communities to contribute resources and implement initiatives. This rapid rehabilitation of services usually leads to highly visible ‘quick wins’ and ‘peace gains’ that reduce the risk of renewed failure in post-conflict settings (OECD, 2008).

The question of sustainability of CBIs yielded a mixed response in our study. Seven of the respondents believed that initiatives’ projects are not sustainable but are rather temporary projects that try to cover the gap of the state’s absence. The other six asserted that the nature of the intervention and its objectives determine its sustainability level. Others noted that CBIs are a cost-effective and more socially rewarding alternative than NGOs, while others posited that they are but a mere stop-gap measure in the absence of a formal, central government. 

In sum…

The results of our study point to a number of key discoveries. First, that the socio-political and economic environment of a state can render public service provision ill-funded, ineffective and illegitimate, leaving a vacuum in the provision of essential services that can be filled by community-based initiatives. Second, that CBIs, even as an emergency-response in fragile states, have the potential to establish avenues for creative, context-related solutions led by a more diverse membership base of civil society members, which can instigate short and medium-term rehabilitation, reconstruction, and social cohesion.     

Click here to read the full paper: Elayah, M., Al-Sameai, N., Khodr, H., & Gamar, S. (2023). Community-Based Initiatives and Public Services Delivery in a Fragile Context: The Case of Yemen. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, doi: 10.1177/08997640221145182.

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