Adam Baron

Five Questions on Yemen’s Humanitarian Challenges

February 2022

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is, as many note, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. There are complex causes which undermine and pose challenges to organizations that are working to assist. We spoke with Muna Luqman, Food4Humanity Founder, for her views on how those challenges can be met.

1) You were just in Aden. How has the city changed and how would you perceive the most urgent humanitarian needs?

My first impressions were that it was more stable than I had expected. However, it is still sad to see the militarized aspects in a city known for its peace and civilization. Aden has a number of widely recognized unique assets, which are critical inputs to its emerging strategic positioning within Yemen and the region: its striking landscapes and rich urban heritage, the hospitable nature, and openness to diversity. Aden has much of the basic infrastructure, however it needs major investment.

Unfortunately, the high cost of living, transportation, etc. in Aden was truly shocking to me. The government must address the constraints that are holding back economic stability. The British Ambassador’s visit to the private sector led by the HSA Group indicates an awareness of the role that the private sector plays in supporting the country’s economy, especially in the current circumstances that Yemen is going through, and the need to create an economic environment for vital sectors and business entities to enable them to perform the role assigned to them to advance investment, development, and thus reviving the economy.

On the humanitarian side, displaced families in Yemen are on the edge of survival, and in southern areas they require urgent protection and assistance to save their lives and livelihoods, including food, water, shelter, and health. The attention and humanitarian response has to focus on areas that have a high amount of displacement caused by floods and conflict, in addition to host communities and returnees who are often overlooked and also suffer immensely.

At the same time, the economic crisis, the decline of the private sector, and the non-payment of salaries in the public sector, as well as the overall loss of livelihoods, has left people without the means to purchase what is available in the market. Significant delays in food imports and marked up prices have increased food costs. The disbursement of regular salaries and the fuel crisis should be among the top priorities. But first and foremost, there is a need for stability and security and the prevention of frequent outbreaks of violence – and crucially, law and order.

2) How would you frame the most significant structural challenges facing Yemeni humanitarian organizations?

Humanitarian aid delivery continues to face impediments, and the situation is further worsened by a collapsing economy. In many parts of the country, water and power plants, factories, and markets have stopped functioning.

Humanitarian responses in Yemen involve large numbers of national and international actors who frequently work in the same geographical areas and towards the same broad goals. However, coordination and collaboration among them are often limited at best, despite some efforts, and clusters or sub clusters are limited in coordination. Failure to work together has led to gaps in coverage and to duplications and inefficiencies in the emergency response. Many of the women-led organizations find it difficult to access humanitarian funding, which leads to inefficiency, especially as women and youth are at the frontlines of aid response.

In Yemen’s conflict, warring parties have contributed to aid and food disruption and diversion, as well as corruption, as a political tool, exacerbating what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Food and medical supplies can be held at ports and frontline borders due to bureaucracy from both warring sides. Also, it often does not reach the target beneficiaries. Instead, it can be used for profiteering or mobilizing fighters at battle fronts.

Threats and violent incidents, including attacks and kidnapping, against humanitarian workers are increasing. And we also face numerous administrative and bureaucratic impediments, in particular renewing permits and licenses and banking issues due to the dominance of non-state actors over the banks. There are also the issues of manipulating beneficiary lists and hampering activities indispensable for survival, including taxing movements of essential commodities (often multiple times at checkpoints). Ministries also impose bureaucracy, in particular in Sana’a but also in other government areas. Restrictions on humanitarian access and freedom of movement continue to be a key challenge, particularly in the sieged city of Taiz. Permissions obtained in Sana’a or Aden are often meaningless outside of those cities, where various armed groups ultimately control access. Humanitarian work is being instrumentalised by both sides of the conflict.

Local businesses that support local humanitarian organizations also face challenges, because Yemen imports 90% of its food and much of it is imported by the private sector. The food sector experiences many of the same challenges faced by other businesses in Yemen. The lack of available fuel, complex taxation arrangements, and the end of the government’s food import financing scheme in 2020 have driven up costs for private sector organisations.

3) How can international organizations help to shift from emergency aid to more sustainable development?

By investing strategically in a long-term vision for the country, donors will enable the country to begin addressing the economic challenges it faces and enable families to begin providing for themselves once again. They could partner with grassroots initiatives and community-based women and youth organizations and networks to maximize impact and effectiveness – particularly as they would then have access to remote areas and knowledge of local contexts. This could help ensure the provision of flexible multi-year funding and lift restrictions to access humanitarian funding.

There is a need to allocate the majority of the aid funding to areas with sustainable impact, including supporting civil servants’ salaries, social welfare cash aid, livelihood activities including in the agricultural and fisheries sectors, girls’ and boys’ education, health services, improving electricity and water services, and combating child recruitment to the conflict.

4) What are the key opportunities and challenges of public–private partnership?

Local private sector organisations have a strong understanding of the population’s needs. With widespread delays in public sector pay across Yemen, the private sector is a vital source of income for citizens, supporting many families and enabling them to purchase foodstuffs. Humanitarian agencies often purchase foodstuffs from private sector importers, generating income in the local economy.

However, the quality of dialogue, particularly between the public and private sector, needs to improve, and the responsibilities of the private and public sectors need to be articulated, acknowledged, and pursued. While the government needs to do everything it can to help the private sector, the private sector needs to increase its contributions to economic stability. Private sector actors are well-positioned to drive foreign investment and lead recovery across the economy, allowing time for longer-term food security projects to thrive.

5) What trends and shifts do you think actors – both local and international – in the development and humanitarian sectors should anticipate? 

Yemen’s multifaceted and prolonged conflict has weakened both the formal state and formal private sector. This has allowed the emergence of new players in the ‘war economy’, shaped by the interests of fighting parties, and this is a growing challenge to stability, development, and an effective humanitarian response. The consequences will be felt well into the future and are likely to contribute to future famines if left unchecked. The international community and local partners, including the private sector, should maintain a holistic approach to food security, acknowledging the importance of damaged infrastructure and a negative economic environment.      

Muna Luqman is the Founder and Chairperson of Food4Humanity. She frequently briefs the UN Security Council and has advocated globally to stop the war and for humanitarian action and women’s participation in the peace process in Yemen. Muna is currently working on security sector reform and governance with DCAF.

Adam Baron is a writer and political analyst. He was based in Yemen from 20112014. He is also a YPC Board Member.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.

Jatinder Padda
Fatima Saleh (Arabic)
Muna Luqman with Richard Oppenheim, British Ambassador to Yemen, on a recent visit to Aden. Credit: HSA media team.
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