BY: SASKIA VAN GENUGTEN
Due to the limited progress being made towards a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen, the country’s humanitarian outlook remains increasingly dire. This is evidenced in the 2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview for Yemen, published in December 2017 by the United Nation’s Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA). The international community estimates it requires USD 2.96 billion to address current humanitarian needs.
The dreadful situation partly reflects Yemen’s long-term weaknesses, which include an excessively steep population growth, poor employment prospects, inadequate water management, and long standing intra- and international historical grievances. To that unfortunate list, the ongoing war between Houthi rebels and groups supporting Yemen's internationally recognised government has added layers of increased insecurity, severe damage to strategic infrastructure and public institutions, the loss of livelihoods as well as difficulties to obtain or finance much-needed vital commodities.
While the long-standing structural weaknesses cannot be removed overnight, a good number of the humanitarian challenges that Yemen currently faces are man-made and as such lend themselves as areas in which immediate to short-term actions can improve the humanitarian situation. These include the following:
Increased food and water insecurity and the risk of famine: 60 percent of Yemen’s population is believed to be food insecure. The causes include supply disruptions due to import restrictions, transportation issues due to war and security issues, a lack of fuel, diminishing purchasing power due to inflation and the authorities’ inability to pay public salaries, as well as difficulties with financial transactions due to liquidity problems.
Spread of communicable diseases such as cholera and diphtheria. The lack of nutrition, clean drinking water and health care services has made Yemenis vulnerable to infectious diseases. Risk factors include a lack of public sanitation works, contaminated water and a scarcity of medicines, vaccines and fuel.
Internal displacement due to fighting and insecurity. Since the onset of the conflict, a large number of internally displaced people (IDPs) has been added to the pre-existing mix of refugees and migrants. They need emergency shelter and access to vital food and health services, while social tensions between displaced people and host communities need to be contained.
Collapsing public institutions and disruption of basic services: Foreign exchange reserves have decreased significantly, the local currency has lost value and public employees are owed back salaries. The (central) state lacks income due to an economic collapse and localization of tax receipts, while the politicization of neutral institutions such as the Central Bank has had additional negative effects.
The above-mentioned issues all come with their own specific elements to tackle. However, to generate positive momentum and immediate-to-short term impact, international donors and implementing agencies on the ground in Yemen should focus on the interlinkages between these issues and focus efforts around the following three areas of cooperative action:
Enabling and improving access and distribution of vital goods throughout Yemen. This can be done by easing the flow of commercial goods and humanitarian aid through the port of Hodeidah, which would need to go hand-in-hand with increasing robust security guarantees through the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism, minimizing delays for ships that have passed inspection and with repairing conflict-related damage to the port. In addition, international donors could directly sponsor and facilitate humanitarian airlifts as well as facilitate distribution via overland routes, including providing for mobile storage units and creating secured land corridors. Increasing the mobility of civilians enabling them to reach marketplaces is another seemingly logical – but high impact – measure.
Stabilising Yemen’s financial system and ensuring indiscriminate basic service provision. To ease the effects on basic services stemming from a decrease in state income, currency depreciation and inflation rates, international donors can provide financial assistance supporting the payment of public sector salaries. In addition, donors are ideally placed to provide technical assistance to the Central Bank and other vital financial institutions, increasing liquidity in the financial system through cash injections, unfreezing assets or expanding cash-based assistance for basic goods. These are all measures that would help increase the populations’ purchasing power and overall liquidity in Yemen’s economy.
Scaling up assistance and living up to aid pledges. Despite the 2 billion USD in humanitarian aid provided in 2017 and the 2 billion USD already pledged for 2018, the outlook for Yemen keeps deteriorating. The scaling up of aid should go hand-in-hand with attempts to improve the accountability and capacity of local authorities to absorb aid and work in close coordination with international donors to maximize effectiveness and value. In this context, investments should also be made to help minimize bureaucratic hurdles, such as facilitating permits and negotiating local access, as well as by engaging in effective partnerships across donors and grass roots organizations on the ground at the community level.
When discussing the critical situation in Yemen, or any conflict, political will is the most important component. Long-term, all-encompassing solutions for Yemen’s humanitarian predicament are currently unavailable, and due to the country’s structural weaknesses, will remain unattainable for the foreseeable future. In addition, for the above listed short-term initiatives intended to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, the security situation will need to improve dramatically and parties to the conflict will need to agree on a sustainable political settlement that benefits all involved.
Bringing order to the country and alleviating the suffering of the Yemeni people are indeed a matter of political will. And for that political will to be found amongst the parties to the conflict, humanitarian-inspired actions need to be applied in tandem with increased security guarantees. If that combination can be found, the international community could quickly make a difference and help stave off a looming famine, contain the outbreak of a health and humanitarian disaster. Here, the onus falls on those global and regional powers able to significantly alter the dynamics at play in Yemen.
Dr. Saskia van Genugten is a Senior Research Fellow at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy. Follow her on Twitter at @svgen.
The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, an autonomous federal entity, the UAE Government, or the EastWest Institute.