Salama Bakhalah

Yemenis Must Have a Say on What Aid in Yemen Looks Like

May 2023

Almost three-quarters of Yemen’s population requires aid. But to date, external actors have determined the way in which billions are spent by the humanitarian sector – and not always effectively. However, as Salama Bakhalah argues, Yemeni people are the ones best placed to determine their own needs. For humanitarian aid to be effective, there must be accountability from the humanitarian sector to the affected population.

“I know my children will have cholera. If not, then another disease. I know that they will keep getting sick, but there is nothing I can do about it. I feed them from the garbage, so of course they will get sick. If you want to help me, help me find food that is not from the garbage before talking to me about how to prevent cholera.” These are a rural Yemeni woman’s words, who I met during work as a coordinator for an international humanitarian organization’s cholera prevention campaign. As part of the campaign, she received hygiene awareness training, along with a bucket and soap.

This incident demonstrates the broken humanitarian system. Although the woman understood the nature of the problem and identified a solution, the humanitarian system decided on pre-defined ‘needs’ and decided on the best solution. Consequently, she did not receive the support she actually needed. Many humanitarian aid beneficiaries have plans to sell items given to them as part of aid packages, so that they have money to buy what they really need: selling rice to buy medicine or selling hygiene items to buy food. Of necessity, people use what is given to them to meet the needs they themselves identify.

Due to Yemen’s ongoing war, more than 21.6 million people – almost three-quarters of the population – need life-saving humanitarian assistance and protection services. 3.1 million people are internally displaced, 17.3 million people need food and agricultural assistance, 20.3 million people need critical health services, and 15.3 million people need clean water and support for basic sanitation. However, the organizations providing humanitarian aid are aware that it does not always meet people’s needs. In fact, a 2019 UNICEF perception survey showed that nearly half the respondents (49.9 per cent) indicated that the aid did not meet their priority needs; only 2  per cent said they were “mostly satisfied” with what they received. There is a clear disconnect between what Yemenis need and what is being delivered; fundamentally, because the current humanitarian response framework does not allow aid recipient communities to shape planning and delivery.

A Gap Exists Between Accountability Commitments and Action

The concept of accountability to affected populations (AAP) has been evolving in the humanitarian sector for decades, dating back to the 1990s. The 1998 Sphere Handbook included the principle of participation, recognizing the importance of involving affected communities in the delivery of aid. In 2003, Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) was launched to promote accountability in the humanitarian sector, and it led to the development of the HAP Standard in 2007. The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability framework followed in 2014, outlining nine commitments that aid organizations must uphold to ensure quality and accountability – with AAP being one of the commitments. Today, AAP is widely recognized as an essential aspect of humanitarian aid delivery, particularly in conflict and crisis settings.

Yemen joined the global shift towards AAP with the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plans of 2017 and 2018, which included AAP as a strategic objective. However, despite some AAP improvements, there is still a disconnect between theory and practice, with commitment to the principles not translating into more accountability. A major obstacle is a lack of coherence when it comes to AAP practices between the different actors in Yemen. There is neither a consistent understanding of what AAP means nor a unified framework, and this impacts the affected population.

For example, in one women-only Facebook group with over 50,000 followers, many asked how to register for aid delivery lists. If the system worked efficiently, they would know how to register, who to contact, and who to complain to in case of problems. With over 100 organizations delivering aid and using different mechanisms and almost two thirds of the population receiving aid, there has been a clear failure to share information. Users not only have to learn about the different methods used by the multiple actors but also find out where and how they can provide feedback. In addition, there are reports of complaints boxes being placed in locations that are not very visible within camps; hotline numbers are not well known; and confidentiality issues impede people in using the lines even when they can access the numbers. Even if they find a way to provide feedback or file a complaint, according to the Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation of the Yemen Crises, there is little evidence of follow up or action being taken.  

What Role can Social Media Play in Accountability for People?  

Social media can be a powerful tool for advancing AAP. Yemenis are demanding answers because of a failure to see the positive effects of billions in aid money on their lives. They are more vocal online about their frustration with the aid system, calling out mistakes and the disconnect between what they believe are priority needs and the actual aid delivered. On Twitter there are multiple campaigns questioning aid agencies. For example, in one 2019 campaign, under the hashtag ‘Where is the money’ (Wain al-flus), people questioned aid money spending after a donors conference, with social media posts asking the international organizations to share aid budget reports. It went viral in Yemen where more people joined the demand, and around 6 million people used the hashtag. Despite the campaign not resulting in system change, it shows the demand for change. In 2022, due to social media pressure, a humanitarian agency had to provide explanations after posting a photo of a single toilet that was installed with funding from multiple donors. People ridiculed the organization by editing the photo to include all the donors’ logos on the one small toilet. In this way, Yemenis are using social media to reclaim the narrative, using their voices to demand accountability.

Social media can facilitate the involvement of affected communities in decision-making processes, provide transparency and accountability to the humanitarian response, and build trust and understanding between aid organizations and affected communities. In addition, it can be used to monitor aid delivery, report on the quality and quantity of aid provided, and provide real-time feedback on the effectiveness of aid interventions. This feedback can be used by humanitarian organizations to improve the delivery of aid and ensure that it reaches those who need it most. Social media can also be used for raising awareness about AAP principles, and platforms can be used to educate affected communities about their rights to receive aid, give feedback, and participate in decision-making processes.

However, social media should not be seen as a substitute for proper AAP mechanisms; rather, it can complement those mechanisms. While social media can contribute valuable insights and feedback, it will not reach all members of the affected communities, particularly those who are most vulnerable and marginalised. Additionally, social media may not provide a safe space for all individuals to voice their opinions, and there may be limitations to the accuracy and reliability of the information shared.

The Aid Sector Will Improve if it is More Accountable

The aid sector needs to start by admitting that lack of accountability is a problem that is affecting lives and that it should address this as a priority. We need a system that listens to people and implements commitments to ensure that people are really at the centre of aid delivery. Communities should shape the response from the start and be given the chance to decide how the billions collected in their name are used. Aid organizations need to rethink how their commitments are set and met.

Aid agencies must be more transparent and accountable as this can be lifesaving. If the sector continues to deprioritize AAP, it will have a negative impact on the way people view aid and aid workers. Indeed, anecdotally, there is already a sense of anger from the community towards organizations. If nothing is done to address the accountability gap, it might lead to access-related constraints. Community acceptance is a large part of ensuring the safety of aid delivery – and losing community goodwill could have worrying consequences, especially in a fragile state like Yemen.

Donors, INGOs, local NGOs, and local authorities, with the local community leading, need to work together. Local communities must be provided with accessible and timely information and allowed to play a core role in decision making, with feedback being responded to. Donors must provide resources for operationalization, hold organizations accountable to AAP commitments, and link to funding continuation. The Yemen Humanitarian Needs Overview and Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan should include clear AAP objectives set in collaboration with the community, with quarterly goals and end of year outcomes reporting.

In addition, aid organizations should use social media and other means to share information on accountability goals with the community and work closely with local NGOs. Campaigns should be held to empower the community to participate in decision-making processes. Social media can be utilized to raise awareness and engage affected communities in the humanitarian response.

The system needs to be improved so that it revolves around the needs of people rather than expecting people to fit the existing system. Those working in this sector must fix the accountability gap, because not only is it the right thing to do but also it would renew people’s sense that the sector actually wants to learn and improve, and thus more effectively help those in need.

Salama Bakhalah joined YPC as an Associate Fellow in 2022. Her research focuses on accountability to the affected population, community engagement, localization and humanitarian aid planning and delivery. She worked with multiple aid agencies as an expert in aid planning and delivery. 

German Federal Foreign Office
Karol Malik
Jatinder Padda
Enas El-Torky
A camp for the war displaced, Taiz, Yemen.
8 October 2021. Akram Alrasny / Alamy.
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