Issue 61 - Article 2

Political transition and the humanitarian challenge in Yemen

April 25, 2014
Ismail Ould Cheick Ahmed and Trond Jensen
A WFP food distribution point for displaced families in north-west Yemen

Recent years have seen tremendous change in Yemen. The popular uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in 2011 led to a process of transition where parties to past conflicts engaged in an open and frank discussion about the country’s future, and Yemen is seen by many as one of the very few countries where the events of the Arab Spring still hold out the promise of democratic change. Much of the world’s attention has focused on the political process and security issues because of the country’s strategic position, in terms of both energy production in the region and international shipping lanes. Considerable attention has also been given to the presence in the country of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and affiliated groups. Much less attention has been paid to the humanitarian crisis in the country.

Poverty and humanitarian crisis


Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has a per capita income ($1,270) that is a fraction of its neighbours’. World Bank, 2012  The figure for Oman, for instance, is $19,110, and for Saudi Arabia $21,210. Income from natural resource extraction, mainly oil and gas, has not benefited the majority of Yemenis, over half of whom live below the poverty threshold. Indications are that oil reserves are rapidly diminishing. Meanwhile, decades of under-investment in basic social infrastructure and a population growth rate exceeding 3% mean that many Yemenis lack access to basic social services. This situation has been compounded by conflict and a lack of state authority in many areas.

More than half the population, 13 million people, lack access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. Nearly 9m lack access to basic health care, and 2.5m children are without access to basic education. Almost half of Yemenis, more than 10m people, are food insecure (4.5m severely), and some 60% of Yemen’s children are chronically malnourished, the second-highest rate globally after Afghanistan. Some 47% of children under five are stunted, with one in three of them severely so. Food insecurity in particular requires long-term and innovative approaches. Yemen imports around 90% of its food requirements, but the revenues from oil and gas that largely pay for this are diminishing. At the household level, access to income, rather than food production itself, determines food insecurity. The ability to grow food domestically is under threat from the unsustainable use of water resources. Yemen is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world and its aquifers are being depleted rapidly. Scarce water resources are used to grow khat, a mild narcotic, taking up to 70% of the water available for human and agricultural consumption. Indications are that khat consumption takes up a quarter of already meagre household incomes – much more for the poorest households. The production and consumption of khat therefore has wide ramifications for food production and consumption. The impact of khat on economic productivity is profound, hampering recovery and development efforts. That said, the khat economy employs up to 300,000 people and has become an ingrained part of Yemeni culture. Addressing the issue will therefore potentially carry a huge political cost for any government.

Tribal conflict, often over natural resources, particularly water and land, is increasing, and there is an underlying threat of increased sectarian violence in a country awash with small arms. There are an estimated 300,000 displaced people in the country. A further 228,000 returnees are facing the challenges of re-establishing their lives in areas with few if any basic services and widespread insecurity. Meanwhile, some 243,000 refugees, predominantly from Somalia, have sought refuge in Yemen. The promise of economic opportunities in the Gulf is luring a large number of economic migrants from the Horn of Africa, escaping poverty and destitution, but stricter border controls and a crackdown on illegal migrants in these countries have left many economic migrants stranded in Yemen, often in appalling conditions. En route many fall victim to human traffickers and economic and sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as severe human rights violations.

There are a multitude of humanitarian challenges in Yemen. Their causes are complex, as is the operating environment. Many of the manifestations of humanitarian needs are deeply rooted in socio-economic and structural causes that are beyond the scope of a humanitarian operation. Endemic poverty and a lack of viable livelihood opportunities are the primary underlying causes of vulnerability. To many observers it seems apparent that the political events of 2011, and the instability and turmoil that ensued, undermined the fragile coping mechanisms of people already living on the margin. As a result, it is estimated that 14.7m people are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.

The humanitarian strategy

The humanitarian strategy developed for 2014–15 recognises that many of the underlying causes of vulnerability stem from a lack of development. The humanitarian community has therefore adopted a two-pronged approach: firstly, giving priority to addressing immediate humanitarian needs; secondly, an increasing focus on providing longer-term support to increase self-reliance and lift people out of vulnerability. To ensure that communities and local institutions can withstand and respond to future emergencies, the humanitarian community in Yemen has adopted five inter-linked and overarching strategic objectives:

  1. Provide effective and timely life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable Yemenis.
  2. Assist and protect people affected by crisis, including refugees and migrants.
  3. Build the capacity of national actors to plan for and respond to humanitarian emergencies.
  4. Together with development partners, address the underlying causes of vulnerability to reduce the need for continued humanitarian assistance.
  5. Increase the resilience of households suffering from recurrent shocks.

Implicit in these objectives is the recognition that, in order to eventually phase out humanitarian operations in Yemen, the underlying factors causing vulnerability have to be addressed alongside ongoing life-saving activities.

The humanitarian plan for Yemen is forward-looking and aims to deliver smarter assistance by developing durable solutions for the long-term displaced in the north and building the resilience of vulnerable populations, for instance by diversifying their incomes to enable them to cope with and recover from shocks. It also aims to promote early recovery at the local level by rebuilding local services, strengthening local governance, clearing mines and promoting livelihood opportunities and other interventions that will allow local communities to rebuild themselves. Cutting across these efforts is a focus on building capacity within NGOs and government institutions. Building national capacity is a deliberate strategy to reach vulnerable communities inaccessible to international organisations because of insecurity. It also seeks to ensure sufficient national capacity to deliver humanitarian assistance with a view to eventually phasing out the international humanitarian operation.

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Addressing gender is an integral part of the humanitarian effort in Yemen. Gender is one of the key determinants of vulnerability in the country, particularly in terms of women’s access to income, education, health care and political processes. Over the last five years, Yemen has ranked last out of 136 countries surveyed in The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. This is a hard issue to address in a country where cultural norms and traditions often mean that violations against women go unreported and that women’s access to assistance may be curtailed. As a recent report from Saferworld indicates, women’s participation in political and public life can contribute to their vulnerability. Saferworld, ‘It’s Dangerous To Be the First’: Security Barriers to Women’s Public Participation in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, October 2013.  It is therefore important that activities aimed at increasing women’s participation through humanitarian action are based around a ‘do no harm’ approach.

One of the key dilemmas of the multilateral humanitarian operation is that it has largely failed to attract partners and funding from the region. It seems a paradox that a humanitarian operation on the doorstep of a very affluent region should fail to attract funding. None of the $370m mobilised through the Consolidated Appeals Process in 2013 came from the region. In light of the scale of needs and proximity one would have expected greater engagement from regional actors. Humanitarian partners are seeking greater involvement in the humanitarian operation from Gulf organisations and states, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) maintains a close relationship with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and holds regular consultations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). A representative of Gulf NGOs will also be included in the Humanitarian Country Team, and co-financing humanitarian activities through the OCHA-administered Emergency Response Fund (ERF) is showing promise.


The political process in Yemen holds the promise of a brighter future for Yemenis. It is, however, a fragile process that requires continued support. Likewise, the humanitarian challenges in the country are not insurmountable, but will need to be better linked with recovery and development efforts to address the underlying causes of vulnerability. The direction charted by the humanitarian community in the country points to the need for a longer-term perspective that envisions the end of the humanitarian operation. Achieving this ‘end state’ will call for close integration with development partners in addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability and efforts to build national institutions that can gradually take over the role currently played by international aid organisations. More importantly, the approach has to be one that enables Yemenis to find durable solutions to food insecurity and chronic malnutrition.

Without progress in addressing the desperate situation that many Yemenis face on a daily basis, the gains made in the political process cannot be sustained. The strategy chosen by the humanitarian community, therefore, aims to use limited resources more intelligently through improved targeting and prioritisation. It also entails reaching out to new partners, particularly in the region, that can help sustain humanitarian efforts in Yemen. Ultimately, the challenge is to address the critical need for long-term development, resilience and capacity-building.

Ismail Ould Cheick Ahmed was the UN Resident Coordinator, UN Humanitarian Coordinator and UN Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative in Yemen between April 2012 and March 2014. He is currently Deputy Special Representative and Deputy Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and Resident Coordinator and Resident Representative of UNDP. Trond Jensen is the Head of Office, OCHA, Yemen.


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