Time for a new EU approach in Yemen


Picture of Baraa Shiban
Baraa Shiban

Baraa Shiban is Middle East and North Africa Caseworker at Reprieve

Baraa Shiban is Middle East and North Africa Caseworker at Reprieve

On 3 April 2018, the United Nations hosted a high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, to launch, along with its partners, an appeal for $2.96 billion. The European Union pledged $132 million in response. This is a reflection of how the EU and its allies tackle the crisis in Yemen; and it isn’t the right approach.

Images of malnourished children taken by a news group in the Hodeida province, on the west coast of Yemen, and shown across Europe in September 2016, made waves, gripping people’s hearts and leading to loud calls for aid. Unfortunately, instead of educating the public around the complex situation in Yemen, this successful awareness raising campaign, steered the discussion away from one that looked at the roots of the conflict, towards a more simplistic one that took a solely humanitarian view of the crisis.

What few people are aware of is that the country was in a dire state well before the start of the conflict. The Hodeida province has been living a type of humanitarian crisis for almost a decade due to the longstanding corruption in the country. Humanitarian assistance at the time, from the UN and international relief agencies, failed to solve the situation or meet the direct needs of the local population – the province is in fact still one of the three poorest in the country.

The European Union pledged $132 million in response to the crisis in Yemen

So what explains the on-going crisis in Yemen? To understand the current situation, it is essential to understand the country’s past.

Yemen had a long-standing dictatorship that ruled through a patronage network and centralised power and wealth, depriving many areas, such as the Hodeida province, from development. The protests that hit the streets of Yemen in 2011 were a response to the regime’s continued grasping of power and wealth, and demonstrated the people’s lack of trust in the country’s leadership. The countless twists and turns in the recent history of the country, including the Houthi take-over of the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, show clearly how the crisis in Yemen is a result of accumulative years of corruption, lack of political stability and the resulting civil war.

In a country going through civil war, it is easy to convince EU policymakers of the urgent need to provide more funding for humanitarian purposes. But the narrative that Yemen is living the worst humanitarian crisis has led the EU away from funding critical local governance programmes towards focusing solely on humanitarian responses. While the latter might seem like the most suitable international response to the situation, it is not always the reality – as is clearly the case in here.

This approach has had a heavy toll on Yemeni civil society in particular. After the Arab Spring in 2011, the EU considered these organisations to be vital potential partners, but they lost most of their funding when it was directed to humanitarian programmes instead. This move not only affected civil society, but also negatively influenced good governance and investments in political transition.

The EU needs to reassess its current approach and invest in its areas of expertise

The story doesn’t have to end here. There are alternative approaches to tackling the crisis in Yemen that do not rely solely on humanitarian aid.

After more than three years of war, dealing with Yemen as a homogenic block without recognising the changes that are occurring at provincial level is too static an approach in a rapidly changing scene. In some provinces, the conflict ended two years ago, and people are in need of good local governance, not humanitarian aid. The provinces of Marib and Hadhramout in the east of Yemen are good examples of strong local governance and active civil society that are in dire need of support and capacity building.

Humanitarian aid has its place, but it is crucial to understand that it can only provide a temporary solution to a specific problem, and alone it is unsustainable. The EU needs to reassess its current approach and invest in its areas of expertise: civil society, local governance and the political transition. As a decade of humanitarian relief did not work in Hodeida, it is high time to think differently.

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