Why aid is not enough for Yemen

A Yemeni child who fled fighting between Yemen's armed rebels and pro-government forces in Hodeida, is pictured at a makeshift camp in the district of Abs, in Yemen's northwestern Hajjah province on 13 May 2019. [Getty]
6 min read
21 September, 2021

Wael had been suffering for over two months before he finally arrived at a local clinic which treats children for malnutrition in Yemen’s Hajja province on 25 November 2018. He was three months old, but his gaunt face looked like that of an old, exhausted man.

He had not eaten for a long time. Wael’s father could not afford a taxi to bring him to the hospital, let alone decent formula to feed him. He carried his son on his shoulders as he walked on foot to the clinic.

The economic collapse of Yemen due to the almost seven-year war has left Wael’s father and millions of other Yemenis unable to provide for their families.

While the Hajja clinic provides basic food supplements free of charge, other essential drugs, such as antibiotics, are not available.

"The economic collapse of Yemen due to the almost seven-year war has left millions of other Yemenis unable to provide for their families"

In this case, a private donation made by an individual on behalf of Wael provided great relief for the family, and the child started to recover.

Unfortunately, the family’s joy did not last long. Three months later, Wael’s health relapsed and he was again rushed, on his father’s back, to the clinic. This time, however, there was not a similar donation, and the young child died of complications on 17 March 2019.

Wael’s tragic case illustrates the wider struggle of a growing number of Yemenis who have become solely dependent on foreign aid to survive. Local experts and aid groups suggest that changing policies related to assistance would better address the growing needs of Yemenis.

For the past few years, Yemen has been called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. The UN estimates that there are 20.7 million Yemenis - out of a total population of 30.6 million - in need of some form of humanitarian and protection assistance, of which 12.1 million people are in acute need.

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United Nations response plans for Yemen have dwindled since the war broke out in March 2015, with this year’s plan of $3.4 billion only being 57% funded.

Emergency relief can and has averted complex food crises in conflict areas. Yet, experts argue that monetary aid alone will not properly address the current crisis in Yemen, especially since an estimated five million people are now a step away from famine.

Local aid experts argue that a recalibration of aid assistance can make a huge difference.

Khaled Al-Bably, programme director at Soul, a local organisation engaged with sustainable intervention and socio-economic development, thinks that the current food crisis is partly due to improperly allocated funds, as well as a lack of investment in economic empowerment.

"Pumping funds into Yemen to address a complex web of urgent needs is a temporary and unsustainable solution. Affected communities need to feel independent and secure again"

Bably, when interviewed by The New Arab, said that in many countries where instant aid was generously provided it did not bear any fruit, as it only lasted for a short period of time and failed to address the root causes of suffering.

“We at Soul believe in empowerment,” he said, arguing that promoting economic self-agency would increase access to food, health care, and water.

For over four years, monthly salaries for public servants - the breadwinners for an estimated ten million people - have been hugely disrupted. Millions more, including those in the private and agricultural sectors, have lost their source of income due to the war, extending the range of people in dire need.

According to UN figures, about 16 million people in Yemen are facing acute levels of food insecurity, with cases of acute malnutrition among children under five the highest ever recorded.

A Yemeni child holds missile shrapnel outside a factory after it destroyed in airstrikes carried out by warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition killing three civilians and injured six others on January 20, 2019 in Sana'a, Yemen. [Getty]
A Yemeni child holds missile shrapnel outside a factory after it was destroyed in airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition on 20 January 2019 in Sana'a. [Getty]

The situation has created an atmosphere of aid dependency. Bably advocates for programming in Yemen to include a development component. Providing assistance to people without empowering them can have an adverse effect, he added.

In various regions across the country, affected communities have found emergency relief to be a temporary solution amidst the economic hardship caused by the war.

Yemen was the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula even before 2015, when Saudi Arabia led a coalition of allies who intervened in the civil war. The war exacerbated an already dire situation, and the lack of opportunities has rendered the majority of people aid-dependent.

More aid is not the solution, some experts argue.

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“[Yemenis] are now less likely to look for work, knowing that they have a food basket at the end of the month,” Bably said. He argues that at least 40% of the total response plan should go to development and empowerment programmes. Bably suggests that the 40% threshold should be set as a condition for donors.

“That would make a great opportunity for Yemen to change,” he said.

A significant portion of the UN Response Plan 2021 appears to be consumed by programmes aimed at averting famine and providing nutrition to people in need. A quick look at the response plan figures shows that about 45% of the over $3bn required for the plan is being allocated to the food and nutrition sectors.

In a situation like Yemen’s, restoring people’s livelihoods devastated by the war is likely going to ease quite a heavy burden from the donor community’s shoulders. However, pumping funds into Yemen to address a complex web of urgent needs is a temporary and unsustainable solution.

Affected communities need to feel independent and secure again.

Khalid Sultan, head of the We’am Association, a local organisation based in Hajja focusing on protection and empowerment, echoes Bably’s view - to encourage further investment in sustainable programming.

According to Sultan’s experience in Hajja, one of the places most impacted by the war, the affected communities that received economic empowerment assistance have seen livelihoods significantly improve.

"Local aid experts argue that a recalibration of aid assistance can make a huge difference"

However, Sultan warns of poorly planned investments that appear affordable and compelling but prove to be ineffective. He gives the example of sewing machines that were given to homes across the country to help families earn a living. In the end, they generated too little income for most families to provide for their basic needs.

This kind of aid has become a common trend in many areas. “Grants for the targeted families should entail something bigger than that,” he said. When helping any of the targeted communities with sustainable aid, Sultan said such a grant should also include at least a three-month food stipend to guarantee that capital remains intact and profits flow.

“That can make them stand up again,” he said.

Yemen is sliding further into a food crisis, and many think there is no end in sight for the protracted war. The international aid community has warned of the greatest famine in decades if the conflict remains unresolved and the response plan keeps being underfunded.

Donors appear fatigued. So do the people of Yemen. The fate of children like Wael, the boy who died from severe acute malnutrition, has become a recurring nightmare across the country, even if such stories have fallen below the radar of the mainstream media.

Ahmad Algohbary is a freelance Yemeni journalist who has reported on the Yemen war for international media outlets since the war broke out in 2015. His work has appeared in The Guardian and Al Jazeera English, among other outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @AhmadAlgohbary