With war, destruction and hunger plaguing Yemen for nearly two years, an event has been held to raise awareness of the humanitarian situation in the country. Organised by a group of organisations including Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Save the Children and WarChild, and chaired by journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy, “Strengthen the Humanitarian Response” was essentially a discussion panel with high-profile officials from various international organisations. Yemeni NGO representatives in both Sana’a and Aden took part via Skype, each being allowed to give a five-minute statement and some closing remarks.
The aim was to “bring together stakeholders from the international community to facilitate dialogue with Yemeni civil society, the private sector and national and international aid organisations” and to “better understand the humanitarian challenges in Yemen, and address key issues affecting the current response.” The panellists all did a good job at describing the humanitarian situation in parts of Yemen, and the severity of the conflict was presented brilliantly. The role of the Saudi-led coalition was also discussed very well.
Sadly, the panel lacked an in-depth analysis of the local situation in Yemen. Only one of the panellists, Rasha Jarhum, mentioned the need for localising the humanitarian response. Most of the speakers addressed the topic from a largely orientalist perspective and hardly scratched the surface to explain how complicated the situation on the ground really is.
Realistically, and especially within the context of the current war in Yemen, political affairs on the ground and delivering aid should not be addressed as mutually exclusive paradigms; the distribution of relief supplies, if done effectively, must take local dynamics into consideration. At points when local issues were addressed, former Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell attempted to discount Iran’s arming of the Houthis by claiming that their following of the Zaydi school of thought within Islam is some form of “proof” that Tehran does not have a strong relationship with the rebels. Including sectarian arguments as a form of evidence for a political claim is generally a rather shallow thing to do, but as there is proof of Iran arming the Houthis, Mitchell’s claim was refutable easily. Moreover, using sectarianism to prove or disprove Iran’s dealings with any group in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region is somewhat redundant, because Iran has been proven to have armed and supported many militant and rebel groups across the region that offer the government in Tehran a strategic advantage, regardless of what sect they may belong to.
There was also a very legitimate discussion about the role of the Western media in the conflict. Parallels were drawn between Yemen and Syria; Yemen gets less coverage because there are fewer journalists there than in Syria. The fact that Yemen is “the forgotten war” was emphasised, and rightfully so. Journalists and NGO staff mentioned the lack of access they have to the war-zone. While this is a fair point, none of them pointed out that there are in fact numerous Yemeni reporters already in their country who are willing and able to liaise with their Western counterparts.
The concept of the event was brilliant, and the panellists made it clear that the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is induced by the conflict. However, due to the complexity of the situation on the ground, there should have been more Yemenis on the panel, or at least people qualified to discuss the context of the humanitarian situation in greater detail. By doing so, the organisers would have presented a more substantial base for effective short- and long-term humanitarian response mechanisms to be developed.