Despite decades of international presence inside Yemen and a humanitarian response that is in its seventh year, the world’s organized effort to aid Yemenis through a protracted war is seemingly operating blindly. In addition to little understanding of the country, the environment, and the security and political context, the Yemen humanitarian response is also operating without any clear understanding of needs. It is, therefore, operating without any clear understanding of how to address the problems. Considering that over US$17 billion has been spent on the humanitarian response since 2015, it is scary how little humanitarians know and understand about where we work when it comes to Yemen and why we operate how we do. The result is a response that is at best questionable.
Yemen is overwhelmingly described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. It is also often described as the most complex, least permissive context for a humanitarian response. It is portrayed as unique, and to a certain extent this is true. Yemen is, of course, unique, and so is its humanitarian response operation. No one context or operation is identical to another. The word “unique” when applied to Yemen, though, is often used as an excuse to brush off failures or avoid dealing with challenges. Yemen is “unique”, therefore we don’t have to sit down and analyze why things are not working and consider a different approach. Yemen is “unique”, therefore we should accept lower standards, consistent breaches of principles and a deeply compromised operational environment.
And this is where the crux of the problem lies. Because Yemen is not unique in this way; it is not the only complex, protracted conflict in which aid organizations operate. The overwhelming majority of humanitarian operations take place in sustained conflict settings with nuanced conflict and political dynamics. Many other humanitarian contexts are far more dangerous for humanitarians to operate in. Other contexts often have poorer infrastructure than Yemen, and all but one other response, that in Syria, have far fewer resources at their disposal. Yet in other contexts, the compromises, the bad practices and the failure to deliver to those in need are not accepted as they are in Yemen.
Many people will ask – and some have already asked – why I chose to write this report. People unhappy with it may question my motives and cry bias because of my own frustration during my time in Yemen. They are partially correct. I did find my experience in Yemen deeply frustrating. And I did then and do now question many aspects of the response. But this multipart report is not based on my views alone. Any findings and conclusions herein have been supported and confirmed through research and the many conversations I had during my time in Yemen and while conducting interviews in the course of my research.
I decided to write this report because deep-seated institutional challenges are preventing the Yemen response from being a good response. The institutional unwillingness to transparently and openly address these challenges is blocking solutions and improvements. As one person succinctly put it to me during an interview, “there is no success without failure. In Yemen, we are not able to admit failure, therefore we can never succeed.” My hope is that bringing into the open the challenges and failures the humanitarian community has experienced in Yemen will force a long-overdue conversation about how we can make this response better.
It is also important to note that the Yemen response illustrates many worrying global trends within the wider humanitarian architecture that challenge how we work and our ability to deliver. It is, therefore, not only in Yemen that we need to evaluate our efforts; this is a conversation that should be had on a larger scale.
While this report necessarily focuses on the negatives within the response, I also want to acknowledge that there are people who work incredibly hard every day to try and ensure the delivery of aid to those who need it. Though there were not enough of them, I had the chance to work alongside some of the best people the humanitarian sector has to offer during my time in Yemen. I had the great privilege to meet and work with some amazing Yemenis, and I managed to see large parts of a beautiful country. Unfortunately, these experiences were often drowned out and these people demotivated and exhausted by the wider and louder dysfunctional machine.
The Yemen response is not unfixable. But the many dysfunctions within it are hampering the establishment of an appropriate, principled and quality response. Getting the response where it needs to be will require work and energy, as well as support from all levels. The question that remains is whether the courage exists to do this work, expend this energy and offer this support.