Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Yemen: Navigating the Pitfalls of Humanitarian Aid

Dr Alexandra Lewis, Research Fellow at the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit argues that the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance in Yemen has been undermined by a lack of cooperation and communication between regional and international donors. This leads to a duplication of efforts in some instances, and stalled or inadequate aid distribution in others.

"International humanitarian assistance in Yemen has been seriously constrained by safety, under-funding, and lack of cooperation between multilateral and bilateral aid delivery agencies. Of equal importance, particularly under former-President Saleh’s leadership, has been the role of information distribution and manipulation. 

To address these issues, there is a need for greater cooperation between regional and international donors. International Organisations also need to use less confrontational language in humanitarian aid delivery, so as to promote project cohesion with the Government of Yemen and other important regional actors.

Information Manipulation
It has been difficult for the international community to access priority areas of Yemen. For instance, before 2011, Sa’ada proved only to be accessible through the sub-contracting of local staff. UN and affiliated agencies interviewed in 2010 noted that they had been unable to gain permission from the Yemeni state to travel to the governorate and deliver aid, due to security concerns.

Reports on safety levels, however, were treated with scepticism by local practitioners: information restriction in Yemen has a history of undermining the effectiveness of foreign interventions, with former-President Saleh having heavily restricted the presence of international press officers and journalists in his country (Finn & Webb, 2011).

Ironically, the Arab Spring has resulted in dramatic improvements to this situation, stabilising Northern governorates by allowing them to operate independently. This presents an opportunity for the international community to engage with Sa’ada, either by collaborating with local CSOs and NGOs, or by direct intervention. Such assistance, however, needs to emerge from independent security assessments.

The Language and Restrictions of Humanitarianism
Lack of state cooperation with international humanitarian aid delivery by the Yemeni Government has stemmed from political justifications and from the language of humanitarian action, which is built upon a framework of legal obligations to protect and uphold human rights. Supporting international instruments has previously delegitimised the state in the eyes of Northern, and (in some cases) Southern, communities, by aligning the Government with Western liberal values. 

The international community needs to be careful about restrictions on aid allocation that can damage perceptions of Yemeni national independence. There is scope for welfare, education and healthcare based interventions to be used to promote equality, without necessarily being based on confrontational narratives that might be seen as un-Islamic or un-Yemeni.

Lack of Cooperation
Regional donors have had more success in reaching problematic areas, due to their less restrictive programming guidelines. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait “lead the way among Arab nations in terms of providing development assistance” and humanitarian aid across the Middle East (Riddell, 2013).

However, the effectiveness of assistance has been undermined by a lack of cooperation and communication between regional and international donors, leading to a duplication of efforts in some instances, and stalled or inadequate aid distribution in others. 

Due to a lack of effective monitoring capacity in conflict-affected governorates, international stakeholders voiced concerns at the inefficiency and duplication of those projects that they were able to deliver. These issues are linked to competing narratives of humanitarian and development assistance, with regional donors tending to view foreign assistance packages as overly prescriptive and international donors viewing regional aid as insufficiently accountable (West Asia North Africa Forum, 2009)

In particular, it is recommended that North American and European Governments need to see regional donors as welcome partners in development, taking assistance at face value and offering guidance or coordination services where necessary, rather than striving to lead or manage all humanitarian interventions in Yemen".

These opinions are drawn from a book chapter, out later this year in Antonio DeLauri’s (Ed) anthology: Humanitarianism, Inc (I.B. Tauris).


Finn, T., & Webb, W. L. (2011, March 14). Yemen Expels Four Foreign Journalists Amid Fears of Clampdowns. The Guardian.

Global Humanitarian Assistance. (2013). Yemen. Retrieved March 14, 2013, from Global Humanitarian Assistance:

Riddell, P. (2013). Islam as Aid and Development. In M. Clarke, Handbook of Research on Development and Religion (pp. 17-30). Northampton: Edward Elgar Pub.

West Asia North Africa Forum. (2009). Report of the First Annual West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Forum. Amman: Wst Asia North Africa Forum.

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