Umelto (Alto) Labetubun is Mercy Corps' representative in Yemen, our newest country program. Originally from Ambon, Indonesia, Alto began working for Mercy Corps in 2000, when his home island was rocked by a sectarian conflict that killed thousands and displaced more than a half-million people. He worked with our emergency assessment team, helping begin a rebuilding and reconciliation program that still continues today.
After his work in Ambon, Alto moved to the island of Sulawesi to continue working for Mercy Corps Indonesia as a program coordinator. He then took on new roles for the agency outside his home country: first as a peace-building advisor for Mercy Corps in southern Sudan, then as a program manager in Iraq.
He arrived in Yemen at the beginning of this year — just in time to experience the protests and change that are sweeping through the Middle East. Alto took time to answer questions about the current situation and Mercy Corps' work in Yemen.
What are you seeing, hearing and experiencing from the protests there? What are youth saying?
Alto: The youth want to be heard and, so far, they have neither experienced enough nor adequate opportunities and venues to express their voices. They're mostly protesting over a lack of economic opportunities and the feeling of inequality. So far, the protests have been peaceful and we've seen both pro- and anti-government shows of force. However, there have also been a number of incidents in various parts of the country that have claimed casualties The Yemeni people that I've talked to about the latest dynamics of their country are confident that ongoing protests will not turn into violent.
What are the unique challenges that youth face in Yemen?
Yemen has one of the highest percentages of youth in the world: around 75 percent of the population is under 25 years old. It also has some of the highest economic and employment challenges in the Middle East region — the inadequacy of employment opportunities is the biggest biggest challenge that Yemeni youth are currently facing.
I've been down to Aden (Yemen's second-biggest cities) a few times and spent time talking to the taxi drivers, as well as small restaurants cook near the hotel where I was staying. What was fascinating about these discussions was that these people have had more education than these jobs would dictate. Many of them went to college or technical college because they had the belief of a better life through better education. However, the reality is, there are just not enough jobs for them.
The youth also often feels ignored by the system at all levels of government, both formal and informal. They don't know where to voice their concern about their challenges. They feel that there is gap between them and their representative in the government. For example, I spoke with a few young people I met during my trips, and some of them do not even know the local council member(s) from their areas and districts. None of them could recall any interaction such as community meetings with their government officials.
These grievances create a void that put these young people at risk — not only to their own community, but more importantly to the influence of radical ideas. They could easily become clients for radical groups or ideology, if radical groups promise them opportunities that their current government, society and social roles cannot provide.
How is Mercy Corps helping youth meet those challenges?
Our program in Yemen is designed to work with the key stakeholders in addressing these grievances. We acknowledge that there are gaps in the relationship between youth and the governance structures in their community. These gaps of relationship weaken the trust between youth and their government.
Our program works directly with the youth and the formal/informal governance structure in selected districts to re-strengthen this relationship. As a start, we equip the leaders and youth with skills on consensus building, leadership and decision-making through trainings. Beyond the skills development provided by these trainings, we use these events as the vehicle or medium to increase interactions among these stakeholders.
Knowing and understanding of the other parties leads to an increase in productive, collaborative relationships, furthermore increasing trust between youth and the governance stakeholders. The youth will also function as the proxy to channel not only their peer voices, but also their community's voice to the leaders.
In order for youth to become community leaders who can voice concerns to the leaders in the government, youth first needs to be appreciated and trusted. There is a perception in the community that Yemeni youth are only care about chewing qat, an addictive leaf that is chewed as a stimulant. And so, to change the perception of the community about their youth, the program will conduct a series of trainings on skills and business development, as well as conflict management skills and fundraising.
Again, the added value that we're looking for is the opportunity to bring youth from various groups together and increase the positive connections among peers. Then we will financially assist these young people in development projects that they have decided to implement in their communities. We believe that, through tangible and demonstrable activities in the community, the perception of adults in the community towards youth will change — and, reciprocally, that will change the perception of youth towards themselves, as well as redefine their place in their communities.
Lastly, the program is planning to address the issue of unemployment, by connecting youth with the potential employment opportunities in their areas. We will be working hard to identify potential employment, not only in the business sector, but also on government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to host these youth as interns, apprentices or even potential full-time employment. We also planning to connect youth who want to create their own businesses to potential stakeholders who can provide mentorship.
What are the strengths that Mercy Corps brings to Yemen?
Mercy Corps has extensive experience from various parts of the world that can be adapted to the Yemeni context. Since we've just arrived in Yemen for the first time, we have a clean slate to start it right. We also have very dedicated and experienced staff — particularly young Yemeni citizens who are originally from the areas where we're working — who give us strength of local knowledge and wisdom, as well as local networks of leaders and influential citizens.
Mercy Corps always believes in local knowledge and resources, and this program reflects that. Program startup is always a challenge, especially to start a program and to establish our presence in a new country. Yemen at this time is an especially challenging context; here, we must plan for the worst but we're always hoping for the best.