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Rethinking the System: Is Humanitarian Aid What Yemen Needs Most?


The response in Yemen is called humanitarian, but is it really? And more importantly, does it need to be? A humanitarian response is understood to provide material support to those who have been affected by natural disasters and conflict. It is meant to be short-term, to ensure that people can survive until the disaster is over or governments or other institutions can step in with longer-term assistance. For this reason, humanitarian aid typically emphasizes short-term solutions: the provision of immediate food assistance, basic shelter kits that are not meant to last long, and items such as bladders to tide over the provision of water until damaged systems are restored. Organizations with emergency experience will take over health clinics, coordination and service provision until authorities are back on their feet and can provide for their own constituents.

Globally this model is under strain. Most humanitarian aid now takes place in long-term protracted conflicts. Many current humanitarian responses have been running for decades, including South Sudan, the DRC, Afghanistan and Iraq. Yemen’s response has entered its seventh year. This brings many questions about the efficacy and appropriateness of humanitarian aid, and how the response should adapt in these contexts. The topic is much broader than just Yemen, and merits further research. But even among those responses operating in protracted, complex conflict environments, the Yemen response differs in its operating modalities. There are elements of what one would term a “proper humanitarian response,” such as food distributions, (limited) direct implementation by humanitarian actors, camp settlements to home those displaced temporarily and a rapid response mechanism. Yet, many modalities used are not actually humanitarian in its true form, and many development-oriented and hybrid approaches are used within the response, including having authorities implement programs and distributions that are linked to temporary funding and are inadequately monitored. All of these modalities are lumped under the “humanitarian” umbrella, ensuring that the response continues to provide a bandaid for an ever-gaping wound without addressing the roots of the problem.

As discussed in “Challenging the Narratives,” Yemen had immense difficulties even before the current war escalated in March 2015. Yemen’s development, nutrition, food security and infrastructure indicators consistently have kept it ranked among the world’s poorest countries.[1] Development actors had been present in the country for at least 50 years,[2] working with a corrupt state and leadership to try to improve the country’s baseline. Heavy support to state institutions meant that service provision across the board was effected to keep the state functioning.[3]

In early 2015, additional needs and problems further complicated the deeply embedded structural challenges. In addition to chronic malnutrition and challenges in service provision from water to electricity, further factors suddenly arose such as displacement and the destruction of houses, hospitals and farmland. As conflict rolled across the country, access to address any of these problems also became much more difficult, due to the insecurity, the lack of requisite staff and the increasingly bureaucratic restrictions from authorities and the system itself. When the humanitarian intervention arrived in Sana’a, the international community was reluctant to let go of development models, partly due to a recognition that stopping the support would allow the baseline to deteriorate and partly due to expectations the situation would not prevail for long before returning to the status quo. This can be seen through the insistence on keeping the then-resident coordinator of UNDP in the most-senior UN position inside Yemen and continuing the presence of many of the development staff in the first year of the humanitarian response (see: ‘To Stay and Deliver: Security’). Combined with access restrictions that prevented many aid workers from moving beyond Sana’a, making the more traditional means of providing humanitarian response difficult, organizations largely continued to implement development-oriented programming. A formal model of emergency response was only established in 2018.

Yet, as the crisis became one of the most talked about settings globally and a strong humanitarian needs narrative developed (see: ‘The Myth of Data in Yemen), funding for Yemen has been overwhelmingly garnered through humanitarian response funding and the humanitarian response plan (HRP) framework. Traditional humanitarian activities and models were placed side-by-side with funding to authorities and institutions, welded together into the HRP, and presented as a holistic response. The rationale was clear: Needs were seen to be humanitarian but were largely unable to be implemented by humanitarian actors themselves, necessitating their rollout through institutions and state actors among others. Underpinning many of these emerging needs were longstanding development needs that had been addressed in the past through systems the humanitarian response tried to keep in place to avoid the further deterioration of institutions that would one day take over again. Yet, at no point was any clear differentiation made in the causes of needs and the best approaches to tackle them. As a result, the “humanitarian” response has become a muddled approach. Humanitarian and development approaches have crossed over, collided and been mismanaged in part because of previously discussed implementation challenges and, significantly, because there has been no clear framework for approaching these intersections.

Conversations and approaches to managing the different strands of response more generally and how they should interlink and support each other have been ongoing since the 1990s. The most current model that attempts to deal with situations requiring concurrent humanitarian and development approaches to address and resolve needs is the triple nexus approach, which was introduced into the Yemen response in late 2018 and discussed broadly in 2019, but only officially adopted into the HRP in 2021. The concept recognizes the need for duality in response models and would, to a large extent, formalize the existing approach, recognizing the existing humanitarian, development and political components. It would also, in theory, impose a more coordinated structure by bringing together the comparative advantages of the different modalities and tailoring them to a more appropriate response structure. At the same time, the triple nexus has its own challenges and weaknesses, and significant questions remain about the appropriateness of intertwining humanitarian activities with those of the third pillar, peacebuilding. In addition, adopting the triple nexus approach would require stepping away from the “humanitarian disaster” narrative that has been so lucrative for the response, as well as reducing reliance on humanitarian donors and, compared to development funding, relatively easy aid money.

That the current response in Yemen is not working is clear. Frustrations among aid workers and those receiving aid are myriad. The response is far from up to any standard, and its reputation is poor (see:A Principled Response’). All 73 informants to this research agreed that humanitarian aid alone cannot hope to fix the situation in Yemen, without peace and/or a new way of tackling root causes. This report examines how development-oriented approaches inform humanitarian response, whether Yemen would be best served by the triple nexus, despite its flaws, and whether it or any “new” idea stands a chance without addressing the fundamental and deeply entrenched internal obstacles that have so hampered the Yemen response since 2015.

A Hybrid Response, Created by Default, Limps Along

A girl washes her hands at communal taps at an IDP camp
A girl washes her hands at communal taps at an IDP camp in Al-Shaab, Aden, on June 24, 2021. //Sana’a Center photo by Ahmed Waqqas

At the beginning of the humanitarian response in mid-2015, old and new staff returned to Yemen without an exact blueprint of how to move forward. It was expected that the war would not last long, and that an emergency response would, therefore, be of limited duration. Yemen was already heavily dependent on aid to run public services and institutions. As development staff withdrew, and eventually development donors, humanitarian actors were left with a tough choice: take over support for essential institutions and delivery of public services so post-conflict recovery would be easier and quicker, or let them fall apart with the knowledge they would have to be rebuilt from scratch post-conflict. UN agencies chose the first option, dedicating a significant proportion of their funding to the maintenance of public institutions and service delivery.[4]

As the war dragged on, the response remained in this hybrid model of implementing humanitarian aid activities and investing heavily in the maintenance of public institutions. The 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP),[5] for example, included a strategic focus on resilience measures to complement life-saving assistance, with particular emphasis on enhancing livelihoods and preserving vital national social service institutions and delivery mechanisms. Fifteen percent of the HRP budget, US$630 million, was dedicated to these activities.[6] In addition, as discussed in ‘A Principled Response’, hundreds of millions of dollars have been channeled to authorities for salaries and administrative costs, as well as toward the payment of salaries for health workers, teachers and other vital workers who lost their government salaries when the government fled Sana’a.[7] For some agencies, these payments have been a mainstay of their expenditures. For example, 35 percent of UNICEF’s budget in 2017 and 2018 went to cash transfers to partners; almost 70 percent of that — US$178.5 million — consisted of payments to national and sub-national authorities.[8]

Some agencies and programs in Yemen do not undertake actual humanitarian work, though they fall under the humanitarian budget. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, directs support toward Ministry of Health (MoH) offices in Aden and Sana’a to maintain clinics, provide material and logistical support, help maintain minimal epidemiological surveillance and, until 2020, to pay health worker incentives.[9] Even during the cholera and COVID-19 emergencies, WHO staff did not work on the frontlines of the response, but instead provided material support to the MoH and maintained some responsibility for monitoring and oversight.[10] An INGO humanitarian adviser interviewed for this report indicated that when WHO was asked in 2020, after funding cuts by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),[11] whether it could reprioritize funding to emergency response, the agency indicated this would not be possible due to its heavy investment in institutional response.[12]

This is deeply problematic as most institutional support has been given without proper oversight and accountability. For example, UNICEF supports the Social Welfare Fund, which provides cash assistance to 1.5 million vulnerable cases and is now managed by the Houthi-controlled Ministry of Social Welfare. The list of recipients was compiled prior to the L3 emergency declaration of 2015, and UNICEF has been unable to update and verify the list of beneficiaries to date.[13] MSF also found that during the cholera and COVID-19 emergencies health centers and hospitals that were supposed to be supported by UN agencies and programs lacked vital technical assistance as well as support in preventing and controlling infection within the facilities. As a result, hospitals and treatment centers were not up to standard — an indication that the international community and the UN have been “reduced to mere intermediaries between donors and state institutions, moving supplies and funds without providing any hands-on supervision, effective monitoring or technical support.”[14]

The phenomenon is widespread, with more development-oriented approaches continuing to inform humanitarian response. For example, in an emergency displacement situation such as Hajjah in 2018 and 2019, standard practice in any other context would have been to immediately put in place an emergency water bladder system to provide water to displaced populations. Instead, in Yemen, even in response to sudden-onset displacement, the procedure was to install tanks and a tap system. While more sustainable in the long run, the choice required a tender process and took time to complete.[15] This meant that water was not available to the displaced community until weeks later, slowing down a timely response. Overwhelmingly, instead of implementing a proper humanitarian response, humanitarian actors in Yemen have been bogged down in bureaucracy, stuck in tendering processes or facilitating contracts and transferring resources rather than delivering assistance. In this way, the humanitarian response in Yemen cannot really be called humanitarian.

This unique hybrid also applies to donors. Despite the emphasis on the humanitarian sector, 26 percent of funding to Yemen between 2015 and 2019, US$4.5 billion out of US$17 billion, was development funding.[16] In addition, traditional development donors also fund “emergency” interventions. The World Bank, for example, is historically and institutionally a development donor heavily invested in working with governments to support development and growth and build institutional resilience. Yet, in Yemen, World Bank funding has extended to emergency programming such as cash transfers and funding cholera vaccinations. It also works directly with UN agencies that carry out humanitarian response, funding aspects of their work such as emergency health and nutrition projects, next to the regular institutional support.[17]

Triple Nexus: Acknowledging Duality, and Embracing the Political

Aerial view of an IDP camp in Al-Rabat
Aerial view of an IDP camp in Al-Rabat, Aden governorate, on June 24, 2021. //Sana’a Center photo by Ahmed Waqqas

While the imperfect “humanitarian” system in Yemen has been uncomfortable and questionable, it has come to follow the triple nexus concept advocated by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres since his appointment in 2016. This approach, often referred to as the humanitarian–development–peace nexus (HDPN), emphasizes integration rather than attempts to separate humanitarian work from political or development efforts. Although this resemblance had not been intentional, and some in the senior Yemen humanitarian leadership voiced opposition to employing a nexus approach, the concept was introduced in Yemen as of late 2018.

Initial discussions within the humanitarian country team (HCT) for Yemen, and driven by UNDP, on how the triple nexus should be framed for the Yemen context reiterated that humanitarian need in the country is underpinned by pre-existing drivers of fragility, including widespread poverty, weak governance and institutions, and a sub-optimal and unstable economy. It recognized that conflict was an exacerbating factor for needs and had contributed to a sharp deterioration of traditional coping mechanisms, amplifying the effects on the civilian population. The aim of introducing the nexus approach was, therefore, to offset both drivers of need as well as vulnerability by focusing on reducing inequalities, and strengthening the resilience of the population while trying to improve the baseline indicators.[18] Those who advocate for the triple nexus maintain it strikes a better balance and offers the opportunity to at least formalize the ways that different response approaches often work together. In this way, it recognizes the Yemen response is far from traditional humanitarian.

Adapting Responses to Longer Conflicts in Strained Societies

The triple nexus is one of several attempts since the 1990s to address concern that the old way of working around the world may no longer be enough; it is a recognition that conflicts globally are lasting longer than those that ended 50 years and more ago, and that places experiencing protracted conflict-driven emergencies already have endured decades of development challenges.[19] The environment in which humanitarians operate has changed over time, with the average length of a conflict now more than a quarter of a century.[20] ICRC, for example, has calculated that, on average, it has spent 43 years working in each of the top 10 crises of today.[21] Yet the system for responding, though questioned for decades, has not fundamentally changed, as noted in ‘Challenging the Narratives’, raising the question of what needs to be done to ensure implementation of a new, effective approach that fully addresses short- and longer-term needs and the effects of protracted conflict while upholding basic humanitarian principles. Such an approach also would need to ensure timely response when required and avoid diluting or compromising efforts to progress in any of the three individual areas.

The logic of the triple nexus is in its recognition that humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts are unlikely to be standalone solutions to conflicts or the effects of crises. It recognizes that organizations are increasingly attempting to bridge humanitarian and development processes and goals to respond to needs and that a narrow focus on humanitarian needs alone is not enough to tend to the needs of affected communities.[22] The approach is intended to capitalize on the complementary nature of the three aspects of intervention and ensure coordination among actors working within these pillars. With ever-present challenges around financing international assistance, it also attempts to look at ways to fund interventions from a longer-term, more flexible perspective.[23] The theory behind the triple nexus, is that peace will lessen the need for humanitarian aid and development will bring peace, a trio of concepts that are, as Guterres said in 2016, “three sides of the same triangle.”[24]

Challenges Stem from a Lack of Clarity on Multiple Fronts

Though logical in presentation, the jury is still out on whether it works. There is no consensus on how to implement an HDPN in practice, and fundamental disagreement exists on whether it is a theory, a policy or an operational framework.[25] As The New Humanitarian explained in a series of reports, it is not clear whether anyone knows what the triple nexus actually means in practice.[26] For some, HDPN is about addressing short-term needs as well as root causes of crisis. For others, it is about shared goals among the three pillars and a collective culture for delivering. Some view it in terms of synergy and collaboration. For yet others, it is about programming collectively. This lack of a shared understanding of even how to define the triple nexus has complicated efforts to turn the theory into practice, and successful examples of its implementation remain to be seen.[27]

This lack of definition[28] is particularly applicable to the peacebuilding side of the triangle, where it has been interpreted, among other things, to refer to security and stabilization, incorporating conflict sensitivity into programming or building peace from the bottom up, driven by community members who understand their own drivers of conflict.[29] Agreeing on a common definition or approach within the peacebuilding realm would be an important step forward because different interpretations will have varying impacts on the perception and implementation of the other two sides, aid and development.

Blending Mandates While Remaining Effective

Aside from the lack of clarity on implementation and the lack of common definitions, concerns relate to how to blend mandates and whether doing so will only dilute the effectiveness of each. Traditionally, all three components have been siloed, in terms of programming, management and funding; in nexus situations, it is not clear who takes the lead in coordination.[30] [31] And without clear leadership, implementation and follow up will not be prioritized.[32] At the moment, working within separate silos of sectors and disciplines appears to remain the norm, contrary to the collaborative premise of HDPN.[33]

Risks of Compromising Humanitarian Principles

From the humanitarian perspective, concerns relate primarily to the potential for compromising humanitarian principles — a fear that relief assistance will get dragged into politics through the peacebuilding component, and that it will be instrumentalized. If that happens, integrating humanitarian action into a broader agenda could undermine humanitarian space as well as principles, eroding the foundations of humanitarian response.[34] Attempts to implement the triple nexus in Mali, for example, led to military actors carrying out needs assessments and providing security for aid workers, blurring the lines. This scenario has parallels in Yemen, where armed parties to the conflict often implement needs assessments (see: ‘The Myth of Data’) or escort field missions (see: ‘To Stay and Deliver: Security’). In Yemen, though, the armed actors are the warring parties, the internationally recognized government, which retains control over the south, and the de facto Houthi authorities, who control heavily populated northern parts of the country. In the case of Mali, the armed actors were soldiers within a UN stabilization mission. Still, the humanitarian community in Mali eventually shifted toward keeping the three pillars working on their own, finding it more conducive to effective, non-politicized intervention than for organizations to align goals and operations.[35]

Running at Different Speeds: The Risk of Slowing Humanitarian Response

Another concern is that attempting to implement all three components at the same time will lead to a loss of timeliness, which is key to humanitarian action, because peacebuilding and development inherently take longer to prepare and implement than humanitarian interventions. On a practical level, reports in recent years have found that aid workers who have worked in contexts where attempts were being made to implement an HDPN concept complained about increased paperwork, bureaucracy, confusion about leadership and that the approach wasn’t working at the operational level.[36]

Nexus Requires Donor Flexibility in Funding

Fully implementing an HDPN requires a major change in donor funding methods and mindset, and it is unclear whether a willingness exists to make this sort of adjustment. Governments and other institutions, such as the European Union, often will have separate funding streams for humanitarian aid, development and peacebuilding. These funding streams are adapted to the nature of the support given. Aid funding normally is specified as annual and for certain activities; development and stabilization funding is usually multi-year and broader.[37]

In addition, while the nexus requires a significant amount of support to flow through country government systems, donors remain hesitant to invest in this type of support.[38] Humanitarian organizations by default usually balk at funding government budgets because, in a conflict-driven crisis, the government is generally a party to the conflict, meaning doing so would breach neutrality (see: ‘A Principled Response). On the development side, general budget support, adjusted for inflation, fell by more than 40 percent from 2010 t0 2016.[39] Though some efforts have been made to fund nexus activities, and some donors such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) have begun to push for these types of interventions, funding for nexus activities remains far below the traditional funding streams.

A New Way of Working Requires a New Mindset

Reforms to the aid sector’s basic architecture, drivers and ideological foundations, which are needed to effectively operationalize an HDPN, require a substantial shift in mindset. The nexus idea, for example, advocates for the removal of barriers and better coordination, which would necessitate significant structural changes in how organizations, particularly the UN, work. However, no mention has been made on how to resolve issues surrounding the underlying power dynamics, ideology and cultures of these institutions and the vested interests of those working within them.[40] At the end of the day, implementing the nexus would require all involved to accept compromises — including the relinquishing of control and, therefore, power, money and status. While coherence is generally agreed to be a good thing, the vested interests existing within the architecture on which humanitarian action is based means the current structure does not lend itself well for operationalizing the nexus. For some analysts, the reason efforts to improve have repeatedly failed is because no initiative for reform has considered what needs to change from within systems to make concepts such as the triple nexus work.[41] Multiple attempts have been made over decades to address the challenges of changing conflicts and conflict environments. The ideas have not been bad; the operationalization of them has just never worked because the system itself has refused to adapt and change. Without the institutional willingness to transform internally, this latest attempt to holistically address increasingly complex challenges cannot be expected to deliver as intended.

Applying the Triple Nexus (HDPN) in Yemen

Germany-based Vision Hope International oversees distribution
Germany-based Vision Hope International oversees distribution of flour and oil provided through WFP in Al-Khawkhah, Hudaydah governorate on June 4, 2021. //Sana’a Center photo by Anwar Al-Shareef

Though nexus-type activities have been undertaken for years in Yemen, officially imposing the concept of the nexus was not a priority for some of the senior humanitarian leadership involved in the Yemen response. A primary concern was that the nexus would provide even more entry points for the political to potentially encroach on humanitarian space, further diminishing the space for independent humanitarian action and allowing political staff to instrumentalize aid. In this way, the humanitarian country team would be disempowered of its ability to make independent decisions based on humanitarian need.[42] In addition, the nexus idea simply did not fit into the humanitarian narrative cultivated for Yemen that had been successful for fundraising. That narrative focuses on selling Yemen as the worst humanitarian disaster globally due to the war, blockades and airstrikes (see: The Myth of Data’). It paints a picture of immediate need that can only be alleviated through the immediate intervention of throwing food, cash and shelter kits at the problem. There are clear perpetrators who victimize civilians. Refocusing on the nexus would necessitate painting a more complex situation, one of a country already in decay prior to the conflict, beset by corruption from institutions currently carrying out the response, and more systemic issues. Such a narrative would garner less global interest, and consequently, less funding. Despite these challenges, the triple nexus is official UN policy and supported by agencies at headquarters level as well as the office of the secretary-general. As a result, the nexus framework is being streamlined globally, including in Yemen.

Creating a common understanding within the humanitarian community on what the nexus would include in the Yemen context has been challenging, with little concrete implementation. According to the initial roadmap, the overall objective of the HDPN in Yemen is to decrease reliance on (humanitarian) aid through strengthening social and economic resilience and coping strategies.[43] But it has been unclear in advising how to go about that. Adding to the challenge, the planned 2020 roll out of the pilot stage of the approach was delayed by the arrival of COVID-19, which meant that many of those who worked on conceptualizing the nexus in Yemen left before its completion. In the 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan, which for the first time officially placed the HDPN within the response, key areas of focus included: enhancing delivery of assistance, addressing underlying drivers of vulnerability, ensuring sustainability, developing resilience, economic recovery and reconstruction, and capacity building.[44] A practical translation into actions seems lacking.

Like elsewhere, political components of an HDPN approach have been especially sensitive in Yemen. Taking into account the particular complexities of peacebuilding in Yemen, the struggling political process and the fear that linking the triple nexus too closely to the political process would lead to the instrumentalization of aid, the Yemen HCT eventually decided that the peacebuilding side of the nexus would focus on including conflict sensitivity within programming and “strengthening local and community-based mechanisms and capacities for conflict prevention, mediation and resolution.”[45] Much like above, how to translate this into practice remains unclear. The 2021 HRP refers to having adopted conflict-sensitive approaches such as “first do no harm.”[46] This seems mainly to be based around regular context analysis at the community level that is gender and age sensitive to ensure that interventions do no harm and that conflict drivers and triggers are mitigated or managed, without having peace as its primary objective.[47] Further references are made to preventing gender-based violence as well protecting and being accountable to affected populations as the “peace” component. No mention is made or linkage noted with the peace process beyond a recognition that “sustainable, inclusive peace is a prerequisite for ending the Yemen crisis.”[48]

Even once nexus activities are clarified, it may be challenging to roll them out, much like it has been for humanitarian activities throughout the response. This concern is foreseeable in the list of districts identified in 2019 as priority locations for nexus pilot activities. The list includes numerous districts classified as hard to reach or that are inaccessible for UN aid workers due to United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) restrictions.[49] The practicality of the rollout is, therefore, immediately jeopardized — for reasons that should serve as a reminder that changing the modality of aid, or putting in place new approaches, will not solve other inherent structural constraints on the system (see: To Stay and Deliver: Security’ and ‘To Stay and Deliver: Sustainable Access and Redlines’).

Paying for Nexus Activities in Yemen

As a key informant familiar with HDPN planning in Yemen noted, the ability to implement the triple nexus in the Houthi-run north will differ from in the government-run south. While both parties recognize the current aid model is flawed and are aware the Yemeni people are asking for a change, Houthi authorities do not have any budget to implement nexus activities. Direct budget support to the Houthis also is not a viable option. As discussed in ‘A Principled Response’, funding directed through the Houthi authorities has not been audited and has often gone missing. This, together with the fact that donors do not recognize them as a government entity, makes direct funding to authorities in the north difficult and unappetizing. As such, in areas under Houthi control, all of the budget for aid is derived out of humanitarian funding. In areas under the control of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, authorities would be expected to directly support at least some aspects, and some of the costs would, or at least could, be borne by the state and through other funding mechanisms.[50] [51]

Currently, the HRP remains the sole conduit for aid programming within Yemen. With the nexus activities incorporated within the HRP, both the funding and human resource requirements continue to be borne by the humanitarian sector. Development activities by their nature require different programming and a different skillset to humanitarian relief. If activities are to be designed for the medium- to long-term with a focus on resilience, recovery and capacity building, it may be inappropriate to shift this revision and recalibration to aid workers, who are not the best placed or skilled to undertake it.

Drawing from the humanitarian finance pot to resource these activities also is questionable because humanitarian financing, and the HRP, are time bound to one-year cycles. Nexus and development activities take inherently longer to implement, so binding funding to a year is unlikely to be appropriate for some of these activities. As a result, there is a high need for more flexible funding from humanitarian donors, who tend to step up for specific short-term crisis needs but shy away from dealing with the root causes, and for development donors to take up some of the activities. Development donors, however, are much more risk averse and tend to balk at moving ahead with activities in contexts with active conflict and considerable political instability. To date, few donors seem to have taken on funding HDPN-style activities. The fundamentally different traditional interests and concerns of development and humanitarian donors mean focusing the response on HDPN activities carries with it risks of drying up funding streams. This in turn would diminish the HRP budget and prestige of one of the most well-funded responses worldwide.

Adding a New Layer of Bureaucracy

The current humanitarian system is heavily bureaucratized, consisting of multiple coordination forums: the emergency cell, the HCT, the inter-cluster coordination mechanism, cluster coordination, technical working groups, etc. The nexus proposes to add another coordination layer to the mix, with a leadership forum, task force and a technical unit.[52] As the majority of the actors would be the same as those in humanitarian coordination forums, setting up a separate coordination mechanism would increase time devoted to coordination meetings and does not quite fit with the idea of integrating and collaborating across the pillars. A 2019 report conceptualizing the way forward for the nexus in Yemen highlighted inadequate coordination and coherence between development and humanitarian initiatives, and said humanitarian and development co-leveraging was needed to address resilience and recovery.[53] Staffing has not been addressed, however, and it is important to note that currently there are very few, if any, development staff in Yemen. Furthermore, no donors are physically present with the exception of short visits from mainly the European Union and individual European donors. This makes implementing the nexus more difficult. By default, the brunt of operationalizing nexus activities falls to humanitarian actors, who are required to cover not only their own side of the triangle but also the development side. This qualitatively undermines the ability to address the development side in much the same way as happened when the humanitarian response was required to function within a system designed for development and under the senior leadership of UNDP early on in the response. The lack of donor presence again reduces accountability in terms of monitoring and ensuring effective coordination among the different sides (see: ‘Accountability Falters When Oversight is Outsourced’).

Another concern expressed by some key informants[54] was that the nexus would require even further engagement with authorities and more investment in institutions and systems. The nexus strategy in Yemen states that its second objective is to expand institutional support to the broader ecosystem of state and non-state institutions, with a progressive shift of focus from local to national institutional capacity and systems development.[55] The 2021 HRP specifically mentions a focus on governance and state-building, as well as capacity-building for social service institutions.[56] Humanitarians are ill-equipped to deal with this model of assistance, and have struggled in Yemen with accountability and corruption. As discussed in ‘A Principled Response’, investment in and support to authorities in the north has simply meant that aid funding is likely siphoned toward the war effort. Attempts to establish redlines and put in place accountability have repeatedly failed (see: ‘To Stay and Deliver: Sustainable Access and Redlines’). Therefore, it remains questionable whether this arrangement would be effective or wise.

Imperfect Models of Aid. Where to Go from Here?

Women sit with boxes of dates in a food queue at an IDP camp
Women sit with boxes of dates in a food queue at an IDP camp in Al-Khawkhah, Hudaydah governorate, on August 28, 2021. //Sana’a Center Photo by Anwar Al-Shareef

Because the nexus was only officially incorporated within the response as of 2021, it is too early to say whether it can provoke any substantive improvement to the efficacy of the response. On paper, there is an effort to demonstrate change, but words will need to be backed up by action. For the moment, how the nexus is being implemented in Yemen remains hidden beneath vague terms, and there have been no indications the deeply entrenched flaws that confound the current system are being addressed. Without doing so, fully embracing the triple nexus in Yemen could, at best, allow for the conversation to shift to building in standards, best practices and a clearer and more transparent way of effectively implementing the duality. It also could enable an open recognition that the response is not really humanitarian, and that humanitarian aid is not the solution. But without altering the current systems that are holding back the response, effective, systemwide implementation of a more development-oriented approach cannot materialize. In that case, not only would the response continue to founder, but potential additional benefits such as regaining leverage with authorities and improving the perception of the humanitarian sector among the public also would be lost.

While there was broad recognition of the duality of the Yemen crisis among key informants, many of those interviewed were reluctant to endorse HDPN as the solution. Some suggested a better model might retain the siloed approach but have development actors take over the majority of the work to ensure root causes and long-term chronic issues are addressed. Alongside this, a smaller, lighter, faster and more impactful humanitarian response would continue to operate for displacements, sudden onset disasters, outbreaks, etc.[57] Such a model would allow technical experts to remain focused within their respective sectors, with separate budget lines and a clear separation of mandate. A joint coordination structure could ensure coherence and alignment while maintaining relevant separation as this model would keep peace and humanitarian components separate to reduce the potential for aid to be instrumentalized. Whether and what sort of collaboration would exist between the development and political sides would be within the purview of the development leadership.

Regardless of what new model may be employed, significant changes would be needed to the way the response in Yemen is run if it is to have a chance to succeed. Firstly, the response needs to ensure that it is based on real data that informs a comprehensive and coherent overview of the needs of the Yemeni population, supported by analysis as to the root causes of these needs to enable the design of an appropriate response — one that is sustainable, treats people with dignity and involves communities in that process. At the very least, the response should be able to identify and target the most vulnerable. Secondly, the response needs to reform how it manages security and access to areas in need. The current security setup hinders the rollout of aid and the presence of aid (and development) workers on the ground. The reliance on protective and deterrent measures rather than acceptance may work in the short term but renders the response in Yemen unsustainable in the long term. It immeasurably damages perceptions of aid work and aid workers and inhibits the ability to appropriately inform programming and security. It also greatly skews the global perception of Yemen as a society and a country.

The lack of access, perpetuated from within the aid system as well as by authorities, has forced the response to implement aid through not only NGOs (both local and international), but also through authorities. This has meant that large amounts of aid have been diverted, likely to perpetuate the war and enrich those in positions of power with the ability to manipulate aid. How the aid sector has contributed to the war economy in Yemen should be the focus of analysis and inform any future design of response in Yemen. This reliance on authorities and parties to the conflict to implement humanitarian activities not only goes directly against any humanitarian standard, it also holds the response hostage, in particular to Houthi authorities. Reliance on their implementation of aid has meant that organizations are reluctant to spell out what is acceptable in terms of boundaries for an effective operational environment. At this point, it is no longer clear who is running the response, the humanitarian community or authorities. Taking control over implementation and establishing and enforcing redlines is the responsibility of the international community. Unless principles are put back in place, accountability strengthened and monitoring made effective, it would be more efficient and transparent to hand over the money and give up the pretence that aid is being implemented independently in Yemen.

One key reason an HDPN approach may, ultimately, never make the jump from theoretical to practical intact in Yemen is because the past six years have clarified the need for the humanitarian community to delineate its operations from the political. Using humanitarian aid as confidence-building measures to try to push along a political resolution that is clearly flailing has not worked, and is unlikely to work. All it has meant is that aid has been instrumentalized, and that principles and best practices have been compromised at the request of the political. Its use has neither resolved the political, nor done any favors for the response itself. If parties to the conflict have no interest in resolving their differences, humanitarian imperative is unlikely to convince them. The political needs to take responsibility for its own failures, as does the humanitarian.

While there are many humanitarian aspects to Yemen’s situation, most of the reasons why Yemen is in its current state go back much further than 2015 and are systemic and structural. Humanitarian aid therefore cannot resolve them. Pretending that it can is a disservice to finding an actual solution, to Yemen and to aid workers who work hard every day to make a difference. But advocating for a different model of support for Yemen would mean two things: admitting failure by acknowledging that the way the response has been run was not the best choice, and letting go of the narrative that has been both a funding goldmine and the entrenched framework of the humanitarian response. While many of those who laid the groundwork for the current system have left, they have gone on to hold higher posts in the system elsewhere, and for them and the top leadership in New York, Geneva and Rome, admitting failure would dent reputations and egos. While failure is inherently necessary for innovation, a desire for self-protection and fear of the consequences have essentially removed it as an option. Letting go of the narrative that has defined the response would likely undermine any trust remaining in it and lead to a reduction in funding. This would result in a need to cut down and prioritize, which would mean a loss of status — a blow to those currently working on the response and who are likely to push for a consolidation of the current situation, however untenable.

Ultimately, and despite the efforts of many people and billions of dollars, the response has not succeeded. And its failures already have had consequences, the heaviest of which have been borne by the intended beneficiaries — the 750,000 IDPs overlooked for four years in Marib, the families who lost out on food, medicines or monetary aid because it was diverted to fighters or their names never made it on to recipient lists, people who were never reached to find out what they may need and, ultimately, the most vulnerable, who have been most excluded from aid. A nod to the latest buzzword in the sector, triple nexus, will not be enough; the response needs to be redesigned and recalibrated if it is to help ensure a future for Yemen and its people.


To the Yemen Humanitarian Response and Senior Humanitarian Leadership:

  • Review the relevancy and efficacy of the current model of the response in Yemen on the basis of an informed analysis of the Yemen baseline and root causes of the conflict as well as drivers of need.
  • Initiate a transparent analysis of how the aid sector has contributed to the war economy in Yemen, and use it to inform any future design of the response in Yemen.
  • Evaluate whether the triple-nexus approach is an appropriate model for Yemen, and be open to the possibility that it may not be fully applicable. This evaluation should pay special attention to:
    • Ensure application of the framework is clear, practically oriented and translates into activities on the ground rather than only on paper;
    • ensure that the peace component is clearly defined with boundaries between the political, development and humanitarian operations so the humanitarian operating space remains free of political interference and is able to work independently in accordance with humanitarian principles; and
    • ensure appropriate activities and programming are designed for the right situation and are funded by the appropriate funding mechanism. Lifesaving, emergency programming can continue to rely on humanitarian funding limited to short-term and temporary funding cycles, but any longer-term activities such as capacity building, reconstruction, economic stabilization and improvement of baselines should rely on longer-term funding cycles that allow for results to be achieved in a realistic timeframe.
  • Regardless of the implementation of the nexus approach, reframe the debate and foundation of support to Yemen with a clear and consistent message that Yemen’s problems cannot be resolved purely by humanitarian aid.
    • On the basis of sound analysis, undertake a realistic assessment of which needs in Yemen are humanitarian and which are development-oriented. Using this analysis, design separate responses to address the needs through an appropriate modality.
      • There is room in Yemen for humanitarian aid to respond to conflict and natural disasters, but this response needs to be small, mobile, streamlined and realistic about the relief it can provide and for how long.
      • Switch the vast majority of support to official development modalities, which address longer-term issues and are designed for this purpose. Implement proper recovery and development programs where possible.
      • Create different positions in Yemen to bring in staff with appropriate expertise and skill sets to ensure the proper design and implementation of these development-oriented programs and activities. Aid workers should not, for example, be carrying out development activities.

To Donors:

  • Transfer the majority of funding to development programming and evaluate which body funds which activities.
    • Step away from short-term and earmarked funding for short-term solutions, while keeping humanitarian funding in place for emergencies.
    • Fund activities geared toward recovery and resilience with more flexibility, a broader scope and longer time frames to ensure the ability to put in place durable solutions that take time to implement.
  • Push the Yemen response to undertake a proper analysis on the type of response needed, which modalities need to be put into place, and how to most appropriately fund these.

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 and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.

This report is part of the Sana’a Center project Monitoring Humanitarian Aid and its Micro and Macroeconomic Effects in Yemen, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The project explores the processes and modalities used to deliver aid in Yemen, identifies mechanisms to improve their efficiency and impact, and advocates for increased transparency and efficiency in aid delivery.

The views and information contained in this report are not representative of the Government of Switzerland, which holds no responsibility for the information included in this report. The views participants expressed in this report are their own and are not intended to represent the views of the Sana’a Center.


  1. Custom analysis through PovCalNet, the World Bank’s global tool for monitoring poverty, August 23, 2021,; and “Summary Human Development Report 2011; Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All,” UNDP, 2012, p.16,
  2. Achim Steiner, “Remarks on the Impact of War on Development: the Case of Yemen,” UNDP, September 26, 2019,
  3. Ginny Hill, Peter Salisbury, Leonie Northedge and Jane Kinninmont, “Yemen: Corruption, Capital Flight and Global Drivers of Conflict,” Chatham House, September 2013,; Grace Easterly, “Before 2014: Yemen’s Economy Before the War,” the Yemen Peace Project, July 16, 2018,
  4. Interviews with senior UN staff member #1, November 13, 2020; UN agency staff member #5, December 8, 2020; senior humanitarian analyst, November 17, 2020; and humanitarian analyst #2, December 15, 2020.
  5. The 2019 HRP, which was rolled over into 2020: “Humanitarian Response Plan (Extension), June–December 2020,” UNOCHA, May 28, 2020,
  6. “Working Together for Yemen’s Future. A Strategy for Strengthening Humanitarian, Development and Peace (HDP) Efforts in Yemen 2020-2021. Draft,” UNDP internal report obtained by the author in 2020, Sana’a, November 27, 2019, p. 1, and interview with UN program staff member on December 18, 2020.
  7. Maggie Michael, “UN probes corruption in its own agencies in Yemen aid effort,” The Associated Press, Cairo, August 5, 2019,
  8. “Internal Audit of the Yemen Country Office,” UNICEF, Sana’a, October 2019, p. 6,
  9. In 2019, the budget for WHO was US$118.3 million, of which $38 million was directed to vaccination programs, $20 million to cholera, $10 million to coordination and $500,000 toward developing the health system. In 2020, WHO received US$146.8 milion, of which $70 million was dedicated to COVID-19 relief. In Yemen, these activities are overwhelmingly carried out by government entities, not humanitarians. See: UNOCHA Financial Tracking Service, Appeal Data filtered by receiving organization:; Annie Slemrod and Ben Parker, “UN cuts extra pay for health workers in Yemen just as COVID-19 hit.”, The New Humanitarian, Geneva, 7 May 2020,
  10. Interviews with senior UN staff member #2, November 30, 2020; UN agency staff member #4, December 7, 2020; INGO staff member #4, November 16, 2020; and INGO humanitarian adviser, November 18, 2020.
  11. Missy Ryan, “As coronavirus looms, U.S. proceeding with major reduction of aid to Yemen,” The Washington Post, March 26, 2020,
  12. Interview with INGO humanitarian adviser, November 18, 2020.
  13. “Internal Audit of the Yemen Country Office,” p. 15-16.
  14. Christine Jamet, “Humanitarian response in Yemen: Time to go back to the drawing board,” Medecins Sans Frontieres, Geneva, November 11, 2020,
  15. Interview with UN agency staff member #5, December 8, 2020.
  16. “Working Together for Yemen’s Future,” p. 1.
  17. “World Bank Reaffirms Support for the Yemeni People and Critical Institutions,” World Bank, Washington, July 1, 2019,; “World Bank in Yemen: Overview,” World Bank, Washington, updated March 25, 2021, ​​; “Country Engagement Note for the Republic of Yemen for the Period FY20–FY21,” World Bank, Washington, March 16, 2019,
  18. “Working Together for Yemen’s Future,” p. 1; interview with UN program staff member, December 18, 2020.
  19. For more on the evolution of the triple nexus approach, see: Louise Redvers and Ben Parker, “Searching for the Nexus, Give Peace a Chance,” The New Humanitarian, Geneva, May 13, 2020,
  20. Marina Caparini and Anders Reagan, “Connecting the dots on the triple nexus,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm, November 29, 2019,
  21. Michael Talhani and Rodrigo Mena, “Towards a Nexus that Works? Joining Forces in Protracted Conflicts,” online panel discussion, Center for Humanitarian Action (CHA), June 17, 2021,
  22. For more on this, see: Marc Dubois, “The Triple Nexus – Threat or Opportunity for the Humanitarian Principles?” CHA, May 2020, p.6,
  23. “The Triple Nexus: Questions and Answers on Integrating Humanitarian, Development and Peace Actions in Protracted Crises,” We World GVC, August 26, 2020, Italy,; Caparini and Reagan, “Connecting the dots.”
  24. “Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office,” UN Secretary General, New York, December 12, 2016,
  25. For example, the triple nexus is considered to be a policy in: Sonja Hovelmann, “Humanitarian Topics Explained: The Triple Nexus to Go,” CHA, March 2020, Abstract,; others see it as an operational framework: “The Triple Nexus. Questions and Answers,” p. 3.
  26. Louise Redvers, “Searching for the Nexus: The view from the ground,” The New Humanitarian, Geneva, September 24, 2019,
  27. Hovelmann, “Humanitarian Topics Explained” pp. 5-6; Redvers, “The view from the ground.”
  28. The importance of shared definitions, and how the lack of them has negatively impacted the Yemen response in a variety of ways, is discussed in the second report in this series, “The Myth of Data.”
  29. Hovelmann, “Humanitarian Topics Explained,” pp. 6-7; “The Triple Nexus. Questions and Answers,” p. 5; and Mena, “Towards a Nexus that Works?”
  30. Redvers and Parker, “Give Peace a Chance;” Louise Redvers, “Searching for the Nexus: Priorities, principles and politics,” The New Humanitarian, Geneva, October 10, 2019,; and Finn Skadkaer Pedersen, “The Triple Nexus — Building resilience. Introduction and Discussions,” TANA, Copenhagen, June 2020, pp. 5-6,
  31. For example, the humanitarian coordinator usually leads relief efforts, the resident coordinator leads development and peacekeeping is usually led by a specially appointed representatives. One person rarely wears all three hats at the same time.
  32. “The Triple Nexus in Practice: Toward a New Way of Working in Protracted and Repeated Crises,” NYU Center on International Cooperation, New York, December 2019, p. 72,
  33. Ibid., pp. x, 53-54.
  34. For an in depth look into this discussion, see: Dubois, “Threat or Opportunity?”
  35. Redvers, “Priorities, principles and politics;” Hugo Slim, “Searching for the Nexus: How to put theory into practice,” The New Humanitarian, October 23, 2019,; For a more indepth look at the Mali Case study see: Andrea Steinke, “The Triple Nexus in Mali. Coordination, Securitisation and Blurred Lines,” CHA, March 2021,; and Emmanuel Tronc, Rob Grace and Anaïde Nahikian, “Realities and Myths of the ‘Triple Nexus.’ Local Perspectives on Peacebuilding, Development, and Humanitarian Action in Mali,” Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and ATHA, June 2019,
  36. Redvers and Parker, “Give Peace a Chance;” Redvers, “Priorities, principles and politics.”
  37. Pedersen, “Triple Nexus – Building resilience,” p. 5; Sonja Hovelmann, “Humanitarian Topics Explained,” pp. 4-5.
  38. Louise Redvers and Ben Parker, “Searching for the Nexus: It’s all About the Money,” The New Humanitarian, Geneva, December 3, 2019,
  39. The Triple Nexus in Practice,” p. 67.
  40. Dubois, “Threat or Opportunity?” pp. 5, 11.
  41. Sarah Collinson, “Constructive deconstruction: making sense of the international humanitarian system,” Overseas Development Institute, London, July 2016,; Marc DuBois, “Searching for the Nexus: Why we’re looking in the wrong place,” The New Humanitarian, Geneva, January 7, 2020,
  42. Follow-up interview with UN senior staff member #3, September 1, 2021.
  43. “Working Together for Yemen’s Future,” pp. 2-4; interview with UN program staff member, December 18, 2020.
  44. “Humanitarian Response Plan Yemen 2021,” UNOCHA, Sana’a, March 2021, p. 52,
  45. “Working Together for Yemen’s Future,” pp. 4, 8; interview with UN program staff member, December 18, 2020.
  46. “Humanitarian Response Plan Yemen 2021,” p. 52.
  47. “Issue Paper. Exploring Peace Within the Humanitarian – Development – Peace Nexus (HDPN). IASC Results Group 4 on Humanitarian – Development Collaboration,” Inter-Agency Standing Committee, October 2020, pp. 13-15,
  48. “Humanitarian Response Plan Yemen, 2021,” p. 52.
  49. “Working Together for Yemen’s Future,” pp. 9-11; interview with UN program staff member, December 18, 2020.
  50. For example, in areas under the Yemeni government’s control, Saudi Arabia supports the government budget and services that could be used to implement nexus activities.
  51. Interview with UN program staff member, December 18, 2020.
  52. “Working Together for Yemen’s Future,” p. 7.
  53. Ibid., p. 2.
  54. Interviews with UN agency staff member #1, November 13, 2020; senior UN staff member #3, November 30, 2020; UN agency staff member #4, December 7, 2020; UN program staff member, December 18, 2020; and INGO staff member #4, November 16, 2020.
  55. “Working Together for Yemen’s Future,” p. 5.
  56. “Humanitarian Response Plan Yemen 2021,” p. 52.
  57. Interviews with UN staff member #1, November 12, 2020; UN agency staff member #1, November 13, 2020; UN agency staff member #2, November 26, 2020; UN senior staff member #3, November 30, 2020; UN staff member #3, December 2, 2020; UN agency staff member #4, December 7, 2020; UN agency staff member #5, December 8, 2020; UN staff member 4, December 9, 2020; INGO staff members #1, November 5, 2020; #2, November 13, 2020; #3, November 14, 2020; #s 4, 5 and 6, November 16, 2020; #10, December 3, 2020; and # 12, December 17, 2020; Interviews with senior humanitarian analyst, November 17, 2020; INGO humanitarian adviser, November 18, 2020; donor #1, December 7, 2020; donor #2, December 8, 2020; and donor #3, December 14, 2020. All 30 Yemeni informants surveyed during the research for these series of reports reiterated similar needs in a new approach.