An independent evaluation of the UN’s unprecedented humanitarian response in Yemen from 2015 to 2021 says the operation has saved lives, improved food security and reduced malnutrition, but overall it is critical of aid that was of “unacceptably poor quality”.
Since war broke out in Yemen in 2015 an estimated 233,000 people have died, with tens of thousands injured and over four million people internally displaced. With UN agencies mobilising an estimated $16 billion response, Yemen has become the world’s largest and most expensive humanitarian disaster.
Half-finished roads and badly built schools
The evaluation team, including researchers from the Institute of Development Studies, published their findings in the ‘Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation of the Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen’ report. The report was commissioned by the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee. It states that they found the quality of humanitarian aid in many areas to be ‘unacceptably low’, with “sub-standard” construction and “supplies that were faulty or inappropriate”.
Widespread examples included camps for internally displaced people (IDP) with no toilets, roads left half-finished, faulty agricultural equipment supplied and new schools badly built. Hospital equipment also did not work or could not be used, for example expensive X-ray machines left idle because no ink was available to print the images.
Researchers from the evaluation team heard time and time again that aid in Yemen was too difficult to access. This often included not knowing how to get on the ‘right list’ for aid – lists that lacked overall coordination and oversight across different UN agencies, were not updated and left the most vulnerable at risk of falling through the cracks.
‘Bunkerization’ of UN staff
The report also criticises the “bunkerization” of UN staff – remaining in their offices due to what was assessed as ‘excessive security measures’ – preventing them from visiting communities to oversee aid quality standards or identify their real needs. An issue made worse due since the Covid-19 pandemic. During evaluation field visits from hospitals to IDP camps Yemenis regularly asked the researchers “why don’t they just ask us what we need?”.
Overall, the study concluded that due to the short-term planning and budgets of UN humanitarian emergency responses, poor oversight and poor co-ordination between UN agencies, the unprecedented funding spent since 2015 kept Yemen on ‘life support’ but has failed to make substantial improvements for the lives of ordinary Yemenis.
Lewis Sida, Honorary Associate of the Institute of Development Studies and humanitarian specialist who led the Yemen Inter-Agency evaluation team, said:
“The UN operation in Yemen has saved lives but despite the unprecedented $16bn humanitarian operation, Yemen is still just hanging by a thread. The aid work from across the UN agencies has slowed but not prevented the collapse of basic services, and the situation remains incredibly fragile for most Yemenis.”
Philip Proudfoot, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and member of the Yemen Inter-Agency evaluation team, said:
“The UN has managed to keep the life-support switched on in Yemen for the past six years, but we found that the short-term humanitarian funding is ultimately not suited to a much longer-term protracted crisis.
“In cases like Yemen there must be a shift towards longer-term development funding and support that can make sustainable improvements in areas such as nutrition, health, education, protection and livelihoods.”
Abeer Alabsi, evaluation team member based in Yemen, said:
“The most vulnerable groups – women, children, elderly and people with disabilities – have suffered the most but their basic needs have not been addressed. For instance, we have seen that women are still deprived of the most basic rights of safety and dignity because protection is not at the centre of the humanitarian response in Yemen. In the future vulnerable groups must be put at the heart of all humanitarian programmes.”
Recommendations for improvement
The report makes 12 recommendations to improve the humanitarian response in Yemen and for future responses in other countries, such as Afghanistan. Included is the call to urgently improve oversight to raise standards of aid quality and better target aid to the most vulnerable.
To address the finding that the UN’s short-term humanitarian emergency response model is inadequate for a crisis that needs support over several years, a separate protracted crisis funding appeal system is recommended to provide longer-term financing and development support.
Despite a recent truce Yemen remains at war and in a perilous situation. The report warns that until a political solution can be found, and a new longer-term development financing system established, making any cuts to the humanitarian budget will have severe consequences.