On Thursday, numerous stakeholders in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen came together to explore “how engagement by the international community can be strengthened to better support progress on the full spectrum of challenges impacting on the response to the humanitarian crisis”.
The scale of these challenges is clear – insecurity, restricted access (whether by armed forces, challenging terrain or damaged transport infrastructure), lack of funding, inadequate coordination between international and internal NGOs, lack of capacity to meet immediate humanitarian needs as well as the overarching impact of a faltering peace process and lack of a ceasefire.
Over 600 health facilities have been damaged in the conflict
Statistics point to the far-reaching and harsh impacts of the conflict. Save the Children describe it as “the world’s largest forgotten crisis” with over 80 per cent of the population in need of aid. Figures provided by Action Against Hunger point to 3.2 million displaced by the conflict and 4.5 million people in need of nutritional assistance, 3.3 million of which are acutely malnourished. Over 600 health facilities and 1600 schools have been damaged in the conflict.
The events host, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, said during his opening introduction that Yemen is one of the most upsetting places in the world to visit and what is going on there is “scandalous”. Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam Country Director in Yemen, told Al Jazeera:
Yemen is one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes we are witnessing today. More than 28 million people, which is the size of the population, is affected in one or another. 18 million people are severely affected by this crisis… Yemen is under a kind of siege. Media has no access. The Yemeni story is not being told outside – what is happening, how people are suffering because of the lack of essential commodities.
The panel discussion, chaired by Guru-Murthy included Rasha Jarhum, a South Yemeni woman, Development and Social Protection Advisor and Fellow at Aspen New Voices; Mark Goldring, CEO of Oxfam; Bilkis Ahmad AbuOsba, also from Yemen, a Professor of Political Science and Head of Volunteers Coalition for Women’s Rights; Antonia Calvo Puerta, Ambassador/Head of the European Union Delegation to Yemen; Andrew Mitchell MP; Jamie Goldrick, Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Representatives of local NGOs were connected via video from the capital Sana’a and via audio from the port city of Aden.
Unicef estimates a third of combatants are children
Peace was at the top of the list of needs but local NGOs on the ground in Yemen also expressed a number of issues to address before it is reached. They emphasized an immediate need for greater funding and more effective and direct collaboration between local organizations and the international community, particularly in the management of funding and particular projects. Concerns were raised over the allocation of funding driven by population numbers rather than the specific nature and acuteness of local needs.
Beyond this, they highlighted the need to protect struggling services and infrastructure to ensure that there is a sustainable civil society and community support network during and after negotiation of a political solution. Representatives from Aden specifically said all efforts should not wait for a political solution but begin and support ongoing work in the community. This last point was mirrored by Rasha Jarhum, who emphasized Yemenis cannot wait around and that steps must be taken to tackle violence against women, demobilization and disarmament, working with child soldiers (Unicef estimates a third of combatants are children), addressing radicalization and understanding each areas’ specific needs to make responses flexible.
Privileging commercial and diplomatic interests over the lives of Yemenis has been a consistent part of the conflict
The figures point to a dire situation but the impact of humanitarian support was undeniable according to Oxfam GB CEO Mark Goldring. He emphasized that while there was not enough, it is still keeping millions alive and addressing immediate needs amid political uncertainty. He questioned the lukewarm description of the UK’s position on Yemen as ‘inconsistent’ and went further, arguing: “some of the things we’re doing are illegal, immoral and incoherent”.
During the course of the evening #StandWithYemen was trending in the UK, with many using it to criticize complicity on the part of the UK and US governments through continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid the bombing of schools and a funeral in Yemen. The UK has previously been criticized for blocking proposals for an independent inquiry into human rights violations and war crimes. The same day as the conference, foreign secretary Boris Johnson had said the UK was only “narrowly” on the right side of the law in its continued arming of Saudi Arabia. The privileging of commercial and diplomatic interests over the lives of Yemenis by Western governments has been a consistent part of the conflict, perhaps owing in part to the lessened public attention.
Yemen is “like Syria without the cameras”
The majority of the panelists emphasized lack of coverage as a key issue. Krishnan Guru-Murthy addressed the issue of media access, admitting it is hard to get in, to get content and sometimes hard to get back in again after you’ve “upset someone” with your reporting. He called on NGOs to share more with the media if they can to raise public awareness about the reality of what has been described as a ‘forgotten conflict’.
Goldring (Oxfam) described Yemen as “like Syria without the cameras”, where a lack of access for diplomats, journalists and others makes it very difficult for the public and “the corridors of power” to get a sense of what its really like. Head of the UN Delegation Antonia Calvo Puerta said: “We need more images, need more stories… we need to convince people that something can be done… Each one of us can do something to help, we are not powerless in the face of this tragedy.”
While an end to the conflict might not be clearly in sight, the takeaway from the conference was clear. Before a political solution is found, the international community must do everything they can to allow Yemenis the space to work on the immediate and ongoing internal crisis, while providing aid to meet severe need. Local NGOs made it clear that they see rebuilding not as something that takes place after peace but something that is ongoing, that forms part of a process of forming a new future within the uncertainty of the present. These groups emphasized that they are ready and willing to do the work necessary to rebuild. They cannot do that however when governments make empty statements about the severity of the humanitarian crisis while continuing to provide weapons and stall inquiries into human rights violations.
Image: Julien Harneis