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What aid workers are saying about Yemen
Published 01/13/2016 by Global Communities
What aid workers are saying about Yemen
This article originally appeared in Devex
By Anna Patricia Valerio
The violation of what was supposed to be a weeklong cease-fire, the abduction of two aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a cyclone that has complicated relief operations are just some of the recent events that have exacerbated already worsening conditions in Yemen.
Conflict between forces fighting for the exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthis — the Shiite insurgency group that ousted Hadi in January 2015 — has created a political vacuum and endangered the lives of civilians and aid workers working on the ground. While the peace talks in Switzerland in December 2015 resulted in the warring factions agreeing on both a broad framework and a second round of talks set for January 2016, there is still a need for a permanent cease-fire for those discussions to bear fruit.
Continued conflict, stretched capacity
Security challenges are aggravated by the fact that there are now several parties to the conflict, adding more layers to an already complex humanitarian operation, according to Rima Kamal, ICRC’s communication coordinator in Yemen. For ICRC, this has meant that coordinating field movements, securing safety guarantees and addressing violations in a confidential bilateral dialogue have become even more problematic.
Kate Rose, UNICEF Yemen’s external communications officer who has been in Yemen since 2012, said the conflict in Yemen three years ago was more localized and didn’t impact the whole country.
“The country was still reeling from a tumultuous 2011, but the National Dialogue Conference was around the corner, ready to take considerations from all elements of society to develop the new Yemen, a new way forward with a new constitution,” Rose told Devex.
The same issues that UNICEF dealt with when Rose arrived in Yemen are still present now — high malnutrition rates and low access to safe water and basic services, for example — but the continued conflict in 20 out of Yemen’s 22 governorates has given rise to new problems that now affect the vast majority of the population.
For instance, the economic blockade largely led by Saudi Arabia has prevented crucial goods — food, gas and oil products, to name a few — from entering Yemen. Hussam Alhakimi, a Yemeni aid worker who works with both Save the Children and local nongovernmental organizations, added that life-saving drugs, such as cancer medication, are also unavailable because of this blockade.
According to Roberta Contin, country director of Global Communities Yemen, until 2011, humanitarian assistance represented a small part of overall aid to Yemen, which focused on long-term development programs and capacity building initiatives.
“On and off, I’ve been in Yemen for nearly three decades and, as such, I’ve had the opportunity to directly witness the country’s pivotal changes, good or bad, of the past quarter of a century,” Contin told Devex.
But since 2012, humanitarian aid has become a more critical source of support: Figures from the Global Humanitarian Assistance show that, in 2013, humanitarian aid made up 34.5 percent, or $324 million, of all aid to Yemen.
“The humanitarian needs have escalated at an alarming rate,” Wael Ibrahim, assistant country director of CARE Yemen, told Devex. “With not even a year into this conflict, the humanitarian needs are greater than in Syria with over 80 percent of Yemenis in need of assistance.”
Still, there are fewer donors and international aid staff in Yemen today. While UNICEF has five field offices and has majority of its Yemen staff working in the country with local partners to ensure that programs are running, many other agencies and NGOs have had to scale down their hiring because of limited access to vulnerable areas, Rose said.
The cyclones that recently hit Yemen in late 2015 also stretched the already constrained capacity of groups to respond. The aid for those who live in the remote island of Socotra, for example, had to be either flown or shipped. Both options, according to Ibrahim, are costly and time consuming.
“The aid community had to relocate resources from ongoing programs to meet the unforeseen emergency,” he said. “Fortunately, the donor community has been generous in supporting the pooled funding mechanism, which is managed by the [U.N.] Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which allowed for a quick and timely response.”
Physical and psychological challenges
In Taiz, where bombing and shelling have continued largely unabated since last September, and fighting on the streets has worsened, the situation has become even more dire.
“Access in and around the governorate has been extremely difficult, which means that not only are services dwindling, and supplies even harder to move, but monitoring the situation is also next to impossible,” Rose said.
According to Fakhria Hugaira, a Yemeni aid worker who has been working on an emergency water, sanitation and hygiene program for internally displaced people in Taiz, the governorate is where the work of most international aid organizations is concentrated, “but due to challenges, the achievement is very slow.”
Taiz has also had an electricity outage since last March, when the violence erupted, an issue that affects the ability of people to make calls or access the Internet. The lack of oil in the market also causes changes in prices, “so budgets are different from actual implemented costs,” Hugaira told Devex.
Meanwhile, many parts of Sa’ada, the northernmost governorate, have been demolished. In some areas, according to Rose, “displacement is almost total.”
“Internet, phone and electricity coverage are also close to nonexistent,” Rose said. “Of the 1,000 schools in the country that are not functional due to the conflict — either because they’re housing IDPs, housing armed groups or forces, because they’re too damaged, or just in too dangerous an area — around 600 of them are in Sa’ada.”
The damage and destruction of life is not limited to these two governorates. The needs in parts of Abyan and Lahij, for example, have become more acute due to both the intensity of fighting and the difficulty of delivering aid to these areas, according to Ibrahim.
Women, in particular, are in need of assistance, a troubling consequence of conflict for a country that has consistently ranked the lowest in gender equality.
“A common coping mechanism for food scarcity in Yemen is for women to eat less while maintaining their domestic workload,” Ibrahim said. “A breakdown of a safe water supply which requires women and girls to travel long distances to find water is also cause for concern as it puts women and girls in a much more vulnerable position.”
Indeed, the consequences of the conflict in Yemen are “multiple and multifaceted,” according to Contin.
“[They] affect people’s ability to access services and commodities (health, education, shelter, food, fuel, electricity, transportation, to name just a few) and alter people’s perception of what constitutes normalcy and people’s ability to positively respond to different situations,” she said.
Some Yemenis, for instance, subject the source of the aid to scrutiny and refuse to receive assistance from certain countries.
“[Some say,] ‘If these countries are feeding wars in Yemen, we don’t need their aid. They kill us with their left hand and give us aid with their right hand,’’ Hugaira said, adding that the safety of staff who distribute aid from countries like the United States or Russia, for example, may be compromised.
‘Instrumentalization’ vs. impartiality
Despite the risks that the prolonged conflict poses to Yemeni people and aid workers alike, Yemen seems to be barely a blip on the radar of international media outlets. Little surprise, given that the Yemeni government has made the country an inhospitable environment for journalists. Last year, it deported one of the few remaining foreign correspondents in the country. Extremely limited freedom of movement outside Sana’a as well as violent attacks against the media have not helped bring in more correspondents, either.
Often, practical obstacles can also hinder reporting of the situation inside Yemen. “Even when journalists are on the ground and able to provide coverage, there are such significant resources lacking, that even charging a battery can delay a report by days,” Rose said.
The media problem, however, also runs deeper. A Yemeni aid worker who has helped coordinate the work of humanitarian organizations in the country notes that most local media outlets in Yemen are affiliated with either of the warring parties.
“The news information and the message reflect each of their interests,” according to the aid worker, who has requested to remain anonymous.
Kamal, who has been in Yemen since last July, said that this setup “often translates to a biased reporting as well as an ‘instrumentalization’ of various local developments, including reports on humanitarian action.”
This “instrumentalization” also applies to the delivery of aid, in which “the parties to the conflict are increasingly seeking to influence where and to whom the assistance is delivered,” according to Kamal. In such situations, aid workers often have to exhaust so much effort just to defend their working principles of impartiality and neutrality.
“Principled humanitarian action is getting increasingly difficult sadly,” Kamal said.
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