Issue 61 - Article 5

Humanitarian relief and building resilience in Yemen

April 25, 2014
Brian Wittbold, Maisoon Al-Awdi and Salama Mubarak
Al Hudaydah Market, Yemen

Yemen is beset by a constellation of overt and latent conflicts perpetuated by aggrieved local actors and aggravated by both the central government and regional and global powers. In parallel, localised conflicts have taken on dangerous new dimensions and involve new stakeholders. As armed non-state actors gain a greater foothold in the country conflict has expanded, precipitating multiple humanitarian crises in ‘under-governed’ areas beyond the reach of the central government and most aid agencies.

Delivery of humanitarian relief to affected populations has been frustrated by the presence of non-state actors wary of aid agencies’ agendas; such groups often lack a centralised chain of command or administrative structure through which negotiations concerning aid access can be pursued. Aid agencies have been compelled to reconceptualise intervention strategies and develop new tools for monitoring the efficacy and accountability of interventions. This has confirmed the need to shift the emphasis of assistance from delivering relief to bolstering resilience.

This article reflects on the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s efforts to address underlying vulnerabilities and build resilience among conflict-affected people through a strategy of deep cooperation with local tribal populations in areas under the de facto control of armed non-state actors. This cooperation takes advantage of tribal mechanisms of dispute resolution to generate community consensus and guarantees governing the management of public goods and resources, thus opening the door for assistance provision beyond one-off distributions. It emphasises raising awareness of humanitarian principles among the broader population and investing heavily in developing the capacity of local actors to facilitate relief activities.

Crises on the periphery

With humanitarian teams manning operational hubs in strategic locations near conflict zones in the north and south of Yemen, the United Nations Humanitarian Country Team (UNHCT) carries out coordinated relief operations through a network of national and international actors. However, where armed non-state actors control territory, relief agencies’ access to affected populations remains constricted. Ongoing political violence, threats of kidnapping and assassination of aid workers, movement restrictions imposed by the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) and a host of communication and logistical complications inhibit large-scale relief operations in areas of active conflict.

The UNHCT relies heavily on the support of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with access to areas beyond UNDSS’s security perimeter. Much relief programming is being delivered remotely through a network of overburdened, though ever-obliging, local NGOs. While Yemen boasts a strong civil society represented by several thousand charities, NGOs and special interest groups, few of these have the administrative and operational capacity they need to make them dependable and administratively viable partners within the context of coordinated, complex and principled humanitarian relief efforts. Yet many local NGOs, particularly the strongest ones, often feel pressure to overcommit themselves to relief efforts which they may be unable to deliver in an unbiased and transparent manner, particularly given their often pronounced political, religious and tribal affiliations.

IOM’s experience in Al-Jawf and Abyan

Since February 2010, when a ceasefire ended official hostilities between the government and Houthi rebels in the north of the country, IOM has expanded its operational presence in areas of Yemen under the de facto authority of armed non-state actors. To establish and maintain this presence in Yemen, as in other high-risk operating environments, IOM employs locally-recruited consultants from the target geographic areas who are familiar with the operating environment and prevailing political, social and security conditions. Although IOM is subject to UNDSS security measures, it is able to assume an operational presence in areas beyond the reach afforded by UN security regulations by subcontracting local consultants unencumbered by restrictions on their movement. As such, IOM has been able to afford relief to otherwise under-served populations, and in doing so has gained a unique perspective that has been integral to informing the country-wide humanitarian relief strategy.

Responding to crises in northern Yemen

As one of very few operational agencies able to access and deliver relief to affected people in spontaneous settlements and host communities in insecure areas, in northern Al-Jawf IOM had very little pre-existing information regarding needs and vulnerabilities. Initial field visits to Barat al-Inan, Kharab al-Marashi and Rajouza districts confirmed that previous registration and verification exercises had been fundamentally flawed due to corruption and collusion of local authorities, which resulted in inflated IDP lists and ultimately discredited existing baseline information. Faulty IDP lists informed by biased parties complicated the distribution of basic relief materials and initial operations were fraught with obstruction, hijacking and looting as conflict parties blockaded or commandeered aid.

Given the lack of local partners who could provide unbiased assessments of needs and inform relief initiatives, IOM sought to enlist the support of well-respected local tribal leaders who could leverage the organisational and logistical capacity of an informal network of tribesmen. Working with key tribal leaders from conflict-affected areas throughout northern Al-Jawf, IOM facilitated the establishment and legal chartering of a charitable organisation that could securely and consistently access areas under Houthi control in order to carry out detailed needs assessments, deliver relief and maintain an open dialogue with non-state actors.

IOM invested resources in training members of the newly established organisation on humanitarian principles, project development, financial management, monitoring and evaluation and developing its institutional capacity through the rationalisation of a management structure, recruitment of key staff and establishment of a physical presence in Sana’a through which the organisation’s management could receive visitors and conduct business. The organisation was eventually invited to participate in humanitarian coordination meetings in Sana’a and was thus afforded an opportunity to directly advise relief efforts throughout Al-Jawf and beyond, ultimately supporting international NGOs’ and UN agencies’ efforts to negotiate with non-state actors in territory under Houthi influence.

Responding to conflict in southern Yemen

As conflict erupted in southern Yemen’s Abyan governorate in May 2011 between the government and an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Ansar Al-Sharia, IOM was able to draw on lessons from Al-Jawf and position itself to respond in areas of active conflict, where more than 25,000 people were displaced and out of reach of aid agencies operating from nearby Aden.

Given the dearth of ‘neutral’ local NGOs with safe access to Abyan, IOM replicated strategies pursued in Al-Jawf and began recruiting a relief team comprising tribal community leaders who had been displaced from areas across Abyan governorate. Team members were selected based on individuals’ tribal affiliation, access to various geographic zones, their skill sets and their access to influential leaders in the target areas. Within days of the start of the conflict, IOM was able to access active conflict zones in order undertake initial assessment of levels of displacement, damage to critical infrastructure and the availability of food, water, fuel and other essential commodities. In parallel with expanding field operations, the relief team received further training in carrying out humanitarian assessments and relief and monitoring missions, and led outreach and awareness-raising activities on public health issues such as community hygiene and sanitation. Delivery of assistance was always paired with outreach and awareness-raising activities that reinforced messages emphasising humanitarian principles.

In Abyan, as in Al-Jawf, IOM had to devise remote monitoring strategies and mechanisms that could ensure effective programming while minimising corruption and the misuse of IOM resources. As field teams comprised individuals from mutually hostile tribes or opposing political factions, IOM often received contradictory accounts of events in the field and uncovered corruption or abuse of power perpetrated by field staff that either misunderstood or wilfully misrepresented IOM’s objectives and priorities. Where there was animosity among field staff, baseless accusations of corruption proved difficult to verify or disprove without time- and labour-intensive investigations.

Despite these challenges, alongside other actors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Yemen Executive Mine Action Center and local NGOs, IOM was able to gather information on the situation on the ground, including potential new displacement and emerging threats to aspiring returnees. Operating in territory under the control of an Al-Qaeda-affiliated offshoot required consistent negotiation and very low visibility. Through service delivery, neutral awareness-raising messages and mediation via well-respected local staff, IOM retained its independence from conflict parties and was able to assist affected people across Abyan governorate throughout the period of active hostilities.


Humanitarian relief programming for people under the de facto control of armed non-state actors in Yemen has required IOM and partner aid agencies to take a longer view of relief efforts. In doing so, intervention strategies have been reconceptualised and alternative modalities for delivering relief have been explored. In seeking to address deepening vulnerability and build the resilience of communities to future shocks one-off distributions of aid that would benefit individuals and families in the immediate term were foregone in favour of services and awareness-raising that could benefit communities into the future.

In deepening its presence in the field in order to rehabilitate damaged infrastructure, effect behavioural change through awareness-raising campaigns and engage community members in the articulation of priority needs as well as the design and delivery of interventions, through its team of tribesmen and local community leaders, IOM became deeply entangled in a host of local political and tribal conflicts and was exposed to greater security risks both in the field and in Sana’a. Managing such exposure became paramount to the success and continuity of IOM’s programming as well as the safety of the organisation’s field and office-based staff.

IOM’s experience of working through tribal networks and local consultants in Yemen suggests that it is possible to assist people in insecure areas to bolster their resilience to future shocks while addressing their immediate needs. Although cooperation with local populations in areas under the de facto control of armed non-state actors exposes relief agencies to additional dangers, including security risks, efforts to mitigate this through stringent monitoring, awareness-raising and tailored messaging can be effective when delivered conscientiously and consistently.

Brian Wittbold was IOM Yemen’s Emergency & Humanitarian Assistance Programme Manager from 2011–2013. Maisoon Al-Awdi was IOM Yemen’s Senior Field Coordinator in Al-Jawf Governorate from 2010–2013. Salama Mubarak was IOM Yemen’s Head of Sub-Office in Aden and oversaw field operations in Abyan Governorate from 2011–2013.


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