Why Yemen Needs More Support for Higher Education

Scientists and researchers in Yemen face daily personal challenges and professional obstacles that make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to participate in research activities.

A few years ago, their priority was how to secure financing to support their research programs, travel to conferences and pay publishing fees. Today, however, their main concern is to survive and provide basic necessities for their families. Many of them have not received salaries for more than a year, and many have left the country out of fear for their lives or because conditions forced them to continue their work elsewhere. (See a related article, “Yemen’s Ongoing War Leaves Scientific Research Crippled.”)

The war has not only destroyed the nascent research infrastructure, but also the foundation of higher education and research in the country. Unfortunately, what took decades to build was destroyed in a few years. Of course, the longer the conflict lasts, the more people will leave and the less likely they will be to return. If no serious steps are taken to reverse this trend, the damage to the higher-education sector will be irreparable. (See a related article, “For a Yemeni Researcher, Emigration Is the Only Opportunity.”)

Talking about higher education and research in Yemen may not sound like at top priority today when the great majority of the population are struggling to access water, food and basic health care. But this is precisely why it is crucial and urgent to not only prevent further deterioration of the higher-education sector in Yemen, but also to invest more in universities and advanced training institutions in the country.

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When the war ends, and it will end, rebuilding the country, planning for its future and sustaining the economy and peace will be the sole responsibility of the people of Yemen and will require strategic planning and a national work force that is capable to execute and lead. History teaches us that the proclaimed international community commitment will not go beyond providing limited financial support and that we should not expect doctors, engineers or other experts to come and lead the groundwork for building the new Yemen.

As the country—both the people and the government—embarks on this journey in the midst enormous security, political, social, economic and development challenges, it will have to rely on its own highly trained doctors, engineers, researchers, economists, peace builders, and leaders, and think tanks. Sustaining the peace and paving the way for prosperity will also not be possible without addressing the main routes of instability: the absence of strong government institutions, gender equity and a vibrant and growing economy.

“Talking about higher education and research in Yemen may not sound like at top priority today when the great majority of the population are struggling to access water, food and basic health care.”

-Hilal A. Lashuel 

The only way to achieve these goals and face Yemen’s economic and development challenges is through education, research, and effective mobilization of human and natural resources in the country. For this to be possible, Yemen needs institutions capable of producing skilled graduates, thinkers, leaders, and entrepreneurs and innovators who are able to tap into and compete in the global economy. In order for these institutions to fulfill this mission, it is important to support academics and researchers in the country, invest more in rebuilding infrastructure and research capabilities, and demonstrate a long-term commitment to higher education and research.

Once people regain confidence that they can live in peace, provide a decent life for their families and pursue their profession without interference, they will be less likely to leave the country. If combined with a strong international commitment to support the development of the higher-education and research sectors in Yemen, more people would be willing to return.

Unfortunately, higher education was, and still is, the least supported path under the current and former Yemeni governments, and it is always at the end of the priority lists of donors and the international community. Very little international funding, if any, is going to provide meaningful and sustainable support for higher education and to build a knowledge-based society in Yemen. Most donations are made for political reform, basic education, and humanitarian support and relief, and are aimed at providing transient and symptomatic relief rather than addressing the underlying causes of poverty, instability and conflict in the country.

There is no doubt that addressing Yemen’s current and future challenges will require revaluation and reform to basic education, but improving basic education in the absence of an effective higher-education system cannot be achieved nor sustained. Today, it is clear that neglect of institutions of higher learning has not only negatively impacted economic growth in Yemen, but also weakened and undermined the entire educational system and the nation’s readiness to meet future challenges.

The Gulf countries have benefited and still benefit greatly from talents in the Arab world in developing their own higher-education and research ecosystems, which would not be sustainable without the constant flow of talent and expertise from neighboring Arab countries, including Yemen. Therefore, it is imperative for the Gulf countries in return to give back and provide meaningful and sustainable support to prevent the collapse of

“It is imperative for the Gulf countries to give back and provide meaningful and sustainable support. … This is not only a responsibility, but also a moral obligation.”

-Hilal A. Lashuel 

higher education and support scientists and researchers in Yemen and other countries in the region. This is not only a responsibility, but also a moral obligation.

Yemen is a resource-rich country that has a great deal to offer to science and medicine. Therefore, supporting science and research in Yemen could be a win-win proposition. I believe that the rich biodiversity, unique medicinal plants, and centuries-old practice of traditional medicine in Yemen have tremendous economic and scientific potential and could hold the key to curing several human diseases.

The Yemen we all dream of will never be built on foreign aid, but instead on knowledge, research, new ideas, new technologies and an educated and talented workforce. For this to happen, higher-education institutions must take a leading role.

Despite all of the challenges facing the country today, I believe that this is possible, provided that there is a political will by future governments to build a knowledge-based society and a commitment by the international community to facilitate and catalyze this process through sustainable financial support, technical training and academic and scientific exchange programs.

Hilal A. Lashuel, who was born in Taiz, Yemen, is a professor of neuroscience at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne. One of his dreams is to establish a national institute for natural products and drug discovery on the Yemeni island of Socotra and position Yemen as a regional leader in these fields.


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