This year we mark 10 years since the Arab Spring. For those of us now at the Sana’a Center, that historic moment was when we first became aware of each other’s existence, ideas, aspirations and, most importantly, shared dreams for Yemen and the world. It was when we became aware that being different and ambitious wasn’t just okay, but actually our strength as a generation. As well as being a turning point in our individual journeys, it was the inspiration for the creation of the Sana’a Center. It remains the spirit motivating our team today, and is the bricks and mortar we are using to build the foundations upon which future generations’ can continue the struggle for a better Yemen and a better world.
Creating change through independent research and providing a platform for Yemeni voices has been at the heart of our work and growth both as an organization and as individuals over the past decade. This year, our team reached close to 100 full-time staff, running 15 programs across Yemen and the world. We have passed the stage where numbers define us, but we always remember our strength is in our diverse and dedicated team.
By shaping the narrative on Yemen, we are reclaiming Yemen’s stories from warlords, militias, corrupt regimes, and foreign powers. Our commitment to locally produced knowledge also challenges discriminatory international frameworks and unequal power relations. If the past decade taught us that our daring and unconventional approach was the right path, the last year convinced us of our model even more. Our dependence on local leadership and ownership proved sustainable during a pandemic that paralyzed global mobility and crippled the world economy; we produced 83 publications in 2020, an increase of 39% from our 50 publications in 2019.
As COVID-19 swept the world, we deepened our investments in local offices and researchers, opening new offices in Marib, Shabwa, Aden and Taiz, while investing in new technology to help our nationwide network of staff fill data and research gaps. With more than 40 coordinators, researchers and support personnel, we are able to swiftly collect and use data to understand – and influence – developments across the country.
We also moved to digitize the few remaining programs that were not fully digitized, enabling them not only to survive the pandemic but also to increase their outreach, relevance and access. Our Yemen Exchange program, an intensive course on Yemen, moved online; this enabled us to bring speakers who could not have attended a physical course, and to expand to 150 participants — more than all the previous five Exchanges combined.
Similarly, we transformed the Yemen Media Breakfast into a virtual Yemen Media Call, allowing hundreds of journalists from around the world to join instead of limited numbers in Beirut. We kicked off the year by a call with Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdelmalek Saeed. On the media frontlines also, we are proud to continue being the eye of the international press in Yemen. Our experts and digital team play a crucial role in providing access and insight to international journalists and helping to inform and fact-check their work on Yemen. To this end, we organized another visit to Yemen in 2020 for a dozen journalists from around the world. We are grateful to all those journalists who keep risking their lives to help us tell the Yemen story on the world’s front pages, from the environment and politics to the military, proxy wars, qat, and honey.
We also launched new programs and publication series during the past year. Our newest program, Humanitarian Aid and its Macro- and Microeconomic Effects, will explore the efficiency of the humanitarian response in Yemen. In partnership with Arab Reform Initiative and exceptional partners from across the region including in Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Palestine, we will be working to increase women peacemakers’ integration in peacebuilding and empowering the next generation of women social science leaders. We look into such partnerships as a natural and organic move toward the “surrounding region” after we have cemented our presence and relevance on Yemeni affairs.
Meanwhile, through mentorship and training programs, we are equipping Yemeni youth with the most important skill — the ability to ask critical questions — and are trying to help fill the vacuum left by the destruction of social science colleges in Yemen. Our Yemen Peace Forum initiative to empower Yemen’s next generation of researchers continues to grow. In addition, under the leadership of Dr. Sarah Phillips and our research department, we have developed a fellowship for Yemeni researchers and writers.
Via the Sanaa Center Geneva, we are planning to expand these mentorship efforts to other countries in the region in the coming years. Founded in 2019 as an operational hub, we are transforming the Sanaa Center Geneva into a platform to replicate our model of knowledge production in other countries, especially those affected by conflict. We are joined in this endeavor by former Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross Yves Daccord, whose vast experience will help us continue to redress imbalances in knowledge production and to further export it as a tool to change political systems and structures. This is driven from our understanding that information and knowledge are a tremendous source of power, especially during times when Yemen and the rest of the world are haunted by misinformation and the abuse of facts.
In addition to Sanaa Center Geneva, in 2020 we also registered sister entities in the United Kingdom and the United States. The Sana’a Center in Yemen remains the umbrella for these entities.
The last 10 years sometimes felt like 10 lifetimes; when we look in the mirror, those of us who rose up in 2011 see our hair greyer and we are reminded that even as we’ve built and grown, the old comrades who began this journey with us are fewer – some have been killed, some co-opted and others silenced by fear. Our nations are plagued by local militias, shameful failing governments, greedy and opportunist elites, and destructive projections of foreign power and proxy wars. We see, and live, all of that. Hence, we remain, first and foremost, thankful each morning not just for being alive but for the privilege to wake up with jobs that combine our skills, souls and passions. Yes, there is nothing harder or trickier than putting a soul (the Arab Spring in our case) into a text or structure or program. But having the chance to continue to attempt to do so is something we are grateful for.
At the Sana’a Center, the credit for our achievements and strategic patience goes to our team across Yemen and the world. Only they and God know what it really takes to not just keep operating, but to grow and expand our work and imagination. Our field researchers wake up some days not sure whether they will go home or to prison or to the cemetery; the risks they take and their commitment to independent research in one of the world’s bloodiest regions is both inspiring and admirable. Our international staff and experts truly take the back seat and believe in the local ownership and leadership of narratives. Our partners and donors quickly adapted to our model and unconventional formulas of thinking and working. We are grateful for that. Thanks also must go to our board for their advice and mentorship throughout the years.
Finally, thank you to our readership, always. We look forward to a productive 2021.
The Sana’a Center Team