Many of the challenges facing humanitarian operations in conflict zones today are well known. Any package of assistance must survive the politics of individual donor countries before it even starts the journey down the pipeline to the United Nations and other aid agencies. From there, it navigates a maze of bureaucracy between headquarters and destination countries, often running the gauntlet between warring parties and local realities before hopefully making its way to people in need. Humanitarian operations, wherever in the world they occur, are almost certainly flawed.
The politicized and financially constrained structures that international aid must traverse mean no single agency bears responsibility. While many individuals working within the humanitarian community certainly do their best to make the system work better where they can, it remains reasonable to expect that humanitarian aid does more good than harm. At a bare minimum, humanitarian aid should reduce the suffering of the most vulnerable. Whether that is the case in Yemen today is, at best, unclear.
Last week, the Sana’a Center published a six-part report series examining UN-led humanitarian operations in Yemen since 2015, when the war escalated and the humanitarian emergency response began. While the UN regularly claims that Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the findings of the research would suggest that instead Yemen hosts among the world’s worst humanitarian responses. The fault lies first and foremost with the aid system and its leadership, both within and outside of Yemen. This stands in stark contrast to the tendency of senior leaders in the humanitarian effort to blame the failures of the response exclusively on the warring parties.
Yemen’s fundamental challenges are rooted in longstanding development issues, which have only been exacerbated by the current conflict. After the onset of war, long-term international development projects stopped and humanitarian operations began. But the latter are meant to be short-term responses to sudden, large-scale catastrophe, and to some degree such aid will continue to be required until there is peace. Humanitarian aid does not solve systemic problems, and should not be expected to do so.
The humanitarian response to the war started poorly in 2015. It supported institutions run by warring parties, centered almost all operations in Houthi-held Sana’a and failed to branch out substantively beyond the capital; it also prioritized security over aid delivery and lost sight of basic principles of independence and neutrality. And there was no course correction. Instead, these mistakes became entrenched as institutional investment built behind them, aided by the extraordinary success of the UN’s fundraising effort, which was galvanized by its claim that Yemen is on the brink of famine. To date, humanitarian operations in Yemen have received more than US$17 billion, making Yemen the most expensive international relief effort in the past decade, other than Syria.
The UN’s consistent narrative that famine is imminent, however, misrepresents the situation. Famine is not the key issue facing Yemen. Rather, the key issues are food security, malnutrition, access to water and problems related to purchasing power. There is food available, but people struggle to afford to buy it. Endlessly delivering food baskets does not help people develop the means (or the money) to feed themselves. In fact, this form of rapid response helps to reproduce the kinds of food insecurity that Yemenis experience because it diverts attention from the deeper structural issues at play – and the emergency food supplies are readily diverted to fund the war.
The UN’s flawed narrative regarding Yemen has gone generally unchallenged because the humanitarian response has normalized the use of incomplete, skewed, and decontextualized data to guide its operations, which has then been easily reframed or discounted according to the prerogatives of the senior leadership. The activities of the response have also been dominated by security priorities rather than humanitarian ones, allowing the former to undermine rather than enable the latter. This has prevented aid workers from venturing into the field to collect the data necessary to gain an accurate assessment of population needs and to work more directly with local communities, improving acceptance, safety and appropriate response. The humanitarian response has also outsourced many of the basic functions of data collection and aid delivery to the warring parties themselves, who have a vested interest in what the data shows and where the aid goes. In doing so, the response has in many ways become a support system for the warring parties, in particular the armed Houthi movement.
In the runup to publishing this series of reports, we at the Sana’a Center wrestled with the question of whether going ahead could ultimately do more harm than good to vulnerable Yemenis. The country’s needs are real and massive, even if the broken and misdirected humanitarian response is not addressing them effectively. We also debated whether publication would give donor countries an excuse to throw up their hands and abandon Yemen. Such moral abdication on the part of the international community, to leave unfixed a mess they helped create, would only amplify Yemen’s ongoing tragedy for years to come. Our hope is that this does not happen and that, instead, our series of reports prompts the UN and other donors to admit that how they are currently pursuing the humanitarian response in Yemen is failing to meet basic benchmarks and that they begin the difficult endeavor of reforming their processes – for which we offer several key recommendations.
Moreover, as a Yemeni research center whose core mission is the production of knowledge, we should not be in this position. The UN should have in place mechanisms and frameworks for accountability to prevent situations such as this. Donor countries should make sure that the funds they provide genuinely address the needs of the intended recipients, and actually reach them. It is hard to miss the irony of a Yemeni organization struggling with the ethical implications of holding the international humanitarian effort and its donors to account, while those same agencies and frameworks regularly refuse to support local Yemeni organizations for fear that they are at a higher risk of corruption or misusing funds.
Ultimately, when something is badly broken, it must be fixed. Those most in need deserve the support of the international community. Yemenis deserve an aid system that does not sustain the war and that is not preoccupied with preserving its own bureaucratic structures and processes.
Previous Sana’a Center Editorials:
- September 2021: Public Executions in Sana’a Herald Houthi Reign of Terror
- August 2021: Absent Reform, Yemenis Bear Brunt of Government Tariff Hike
- July 2021: Riyadh’s Unconscionable Campaign to Purge Yemeni Workers
- June 2021: The Urgency to Protect Yemen’s Minorities
- May 2021: A Presidential Council: The Best of Bad Alternatives to Hadi
- March/April 2021: Diplomacy May Pause the Fighting; It Cannot Impose the Peace
- November 2020: Biden Needs a Yemen Policy That Doesn’t Look Back
- October 2020: De Facto Partition of Yemen Looms with Riyadh Agreement’s Continued Failure
- September 2020: Six Years of Houthi Rule in Sana’a
- July-August 2020: FSO Safer: Why Are We Still Waiting?
- June 2020: Hadi Must Go
- May 2020: Will Yemen Survive COVID19?
- April 2020: The Drowning of Dissent
- March 2020: End the War Before the Pandemic
- January/February 2020: Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War
- November 2019: The Minefield of Combating Corruption in Yemen
- October 2019: Signing Over Sovereignty
- September 2019: The Brinksmanship of a SAFER Disaster
- August 2019: Where Coalitions Come to Die
- July 2019: The March on Al-Mahra
- June 2019: War by Remote Control
- May 2019: A Houthi Masterclass in Dystopia
- April 2019: Yemen’s Game of Parliaments
- March 2019: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Deportation Storm’
- February 2019: The Apology of Aid
- The Yemen Annual Review 2018: Beyond the Brink
- November 2018: Yemen’s War Profiteers Are Potential Spoilers of the Peace Process
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.