Fixing Yemen's aid problem

The last time the warring parties in Yemen had a go at a ceasefire, it lasted no more than a few hours.

This, combined with the ongoing challenges they face in getting assistance to the 21.2 million people who need it, means aid agencies measured their response to the week-long ceasefire that began on Tuesday morning with care.

“We hope the ceasefire will provide us with a much-needed window into areas currently not accessible,” Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam’s country director for Yemen, told IRIN, describing his outlook as one of optimism tinged with caution.

But the aid shortages go far beyond just the remote areas or the various frontlines of the protracted and complex conflict.

Mohammed Ali Qabbas brought his family – his wife, six children, his brother, his sister-in-law and their seven kids – from the northern Houthi rebel stronghold of Sa’adah to the capital a month before he spoke to IRIN.

Among an estimated 2.3 million Yemenis uprooted by the conflict, they are staying with around 150 other internally displaced people at a centre in Sana’a.

“We have received nothing,” said Qabbas, who is 43. “No mattresses. No food. Nothing. And I do not have [a source] of income.”

Ali al-Qaren, who has been at the same Sana’a IDP centre for nearly six months, also said that the international assistance had been inadequate.

He has been helping to collect aid from local donors so the residents can eat. It’s the only way to get by. “I do not have a job, and these days no one will hire you, even [for menial labor],” he told IRIN.

Where is the aid?

Gaps in aid delivery in Yemen are an open secret.

“The needs are huge, so there is no way that humanitarian organisations can cover all of them,” Julien Harneis, UNICEF’s Yemen country director, told IRIN.

The UN estimates that some 82 percent of the country’s population, an increase of 5.3 million people in the last year, needs aid of some kind.

"There remains a huge gap between the needs on the ground and the humanitarian assistance being delivered in Yemen,” agreed Oxfam’s Sajid.

“Despite all the work being done by… NGOs and the UN, I don’t doubt that aid has not reached [some people]. It's true that the current humanitarian response remains much below what you need for this category of humanitarian crisis.”

This latest break in fighting comes as UN-brokered peace talks get under way in Switzerland aimed at bringing to an end nine months of fighting between Houthi rebels and backers of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, including a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has been bombing the country since March.

More than 5,700 people, at least half of them civilians, have died in the fighting and the bombing. The Houthis are alleged to have ties to Iran and they are also allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ran Yemen for 33 years until he ceded power to Hadi in 2012. Other militant groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and, more recently, the so-called Islamic State, have taken advantage of the chaos to gain territory and support.

Is it supplies?

At the outset of the conflict, aid organisations complained that the Saudi-led coalition was using its control of the ports to block the import of key supplies, including humanitarian supplies.

This supply problem is less of an issue now, several UN and NGO sources told IRIN. But once aid gets into the country, there are still other problems to deal with.

“Even when supplies do get through, road access becomes a huge constraint,” explained Daw Mohammed, country director for Care International. “There are so many armed checkpoints which delay the delivery of supplies and in some cases prevent them getting through altogether.”

This is especially tricky in areas like Aden, where multiple militant groups are fighting for control, or Taiz, a city of 200,000 where late last month UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien accused Houthis of blocking aid and said the city was in a state of “virtual siege.”

See: Life under siege in Yemen

“Despite repeated attempts by UN agencies and our humanitarian partners to negotiate access and reach people, our trucks have remained stuck at checkpoints and only very limited assistance has been allowed in,” O’Brien said at the time.

In addition to problem spots, there are also specific groups who are underserved. Both UNICEF and Oxfam pointed to al-Muhamasheen as a minority group that needs more help. Often derogatorily referred to as “servants” and discriminated against on account of their dark skin, they’ve been hit particularly hard by the conflict.

Treated as an underclass, al-Muhamasheen were already living on the margins of society before the conflict. Harneis said that while many IDPs are sheltering with family members or in communities, al-Muhamasheen are more likely to be living in open areas or public buildings.

UNICEF is initiating a cash-transfer program to target this population and Oxfam’s Sajid said they are also redoubling their efforts to “reach out to them.”

So is it distribution?

Jamilah al-Mujahid, headmistress of Moa’adh Bin Jabal School in Sana’a, which is being used as a distribution centre for a major aid organisation, was happy to help out but angered by how things transpired.

“We were surprised when the organisation called me to open the school and receive aid, and then they asked us to sign off that we had received it,” she told IRIN.

“The team working on distributing aid did not receive any training on how to distribute the aid or who they deal with before the beginning of the distribution process.”

Al-Mujahid complained that the process was disorganised and confusing and that she wasn’t being paid enough, especially for the disruption to her school, which she felt was being left in a mess.

All the aid agencies IRIN spoke to said they closely vet their local delivery partners, namely local NGOS and authorities. But UN agencies and other international NGOs have tight security rules that restrict where their staff can and can’t go. So when aid gets to its delivery point, some agencies can only follow the trail so far.

Rania Rajji, Roving Protection Trainer at Oxfam, told a London event last week, "Yemen's forgotten war: implications for security and development," that one of the reasons assistance was insufficient was because of these “self-imposed restrictions”.

Harneis said it had been difficult for field workers to get on the ground and determine just who needs help, and equally to follow up and make sure they were really getting it. He said this monitoring process was a “huge challenge” for UNICEF.

In addition to boosting its presence on the ground, UNICEF, along with other partners, is developing an electronic mechanism that would allow it to better monitor aid delivery. This would effectively be an app that would allow local partners to check off the supplies they have delivered in a system agencies could monitor in real time.

But Harneis added that there was another serious distribution issue, one connected to Yemen’s insecurity, widespread poverty and rising fuel prices: sometimes locals simply can’t afford to get to where help is on offer.

This problem is especially noticeable in education and vaccination programmes, where he said there was a drop in children attending school and the amount of people turning up for potentially life-saving medicine.

“Humanitarian organisations… will deliver [at] a certain point,” Harneis explained. “The question is: can the population get to that point? That is a way bigger challenge.”

Is aid going to the right place?

“I’m not an IDP and I’m not in need, but the head of the neighbourhood put me on a list,” 18-year-old Asel al-Ward, who said he received a case of food aid he didn’t really need, told IRIN.

On a larger scale, there have been concerns about aid diversion. O’Brien said he was “alarmed by reports that some of the aid destined for [Taiz] has been diverted away from the people it was intended for.”

UN sources said aid diversion hadn’t been a major issue but that there are constant negotiations with all parties to the conflict – including the Saudi coalition – to ensure deliveries end up where they should.

Making sure aid isn’t diverted is still difficult, said Oxfam’s Sajid. “This is a challenge, and we have been working under a lot of pressure, but so far we have managed to ensure our independence in terms of delivery and identification of beneficiaries.”

The biggest impediment to aid delivery is obviously the fighting itself and the insecurity this has brought to many parts of the country. Within hours of Tuesday’s ceasefire coming into force, there were already several unconfirmed reports of clashes.