How have humanitarians met needs in Yemen’s protracted food crisis?— Stories behind the State of the Humanitarian System

This blog is part of a series of articles we are publishing that tell the humanitarian stories behind some of the key findings and lessons emerging in ALNAP’s latest State of the Humanitarian System report.

After a decline in the early 2000s, food crises regained prominence over the past decade, with food insecurity and malnutrition accounting for a significant proportion of the humanitarian caseload. While drought and other climate events played a role in driving these increases, conflict and a return of ‘intentional starvation’ as a strategy for population control were the primary causes. Already in 2022, we see the ripple effects of COVID-19 and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine increasing global hunger through their effects on inflation and supply chains.

The high-level focus on famine has brought renewed scrutiny to the way it is measured and how the system engages in food crises especially in protracted conflict settings. Famine declarations are based on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) process, which draws on a range of indicators including mortality and nutritional survey data and are determined through an intensive consultation process among country-level technical staff and government representatives.

IPC decisions are political as well as technical. Some governments are wary of declaring IPC Phase 5 crises — famines –due to domestic political ramifications. Famines also command the greatest attention and resources globally, as they tend to fit the classic humanitarian model of an acute, short-term response. Fewer resources and less attention are directed to protracted hunger crises, where populations can remain at lower levels of emergency (IPC Phases 3 and 4) but for longer periods of time, resulting in higher excess mortality rates.

The following case study, featuring in our 5th State of the Humanitarian System report, considers the effectiveness of the humanitarian response to food insecurity in Yemen. It explains that while the humanitarian community has been successful in providing millions of people with food support, the system is stretched as the economic situation in the country deteriorates and conflict continues. It highlights the challenges of responding to food insecurity in a protracted conflict context, including how the prioritisation of food aid can overshadow other forms of support, thereby underscoring the need for longer term political and economic solutions.

Taiz Governorate, Dhubab. The activities of fishermen on the Red Sea Coast are affected by the shelling and restrictions imposed due to the war.
Photo credit: ICRC, Ali Najeeb

The case study was researched and written by a local researcher in Yemen. Their name has been withheld at their request to protect their identity.

Yemen case study: Understanding effectiveness in a food crisis

‘A rapidly deteriorating economy coupled with escalating conflict has led to claims that Yemen is home to the world’s worst food security crisis.’

Estimates from late 2021 suggest that 16.2 million people (45% of the population) in Yemen are food-insecure and WFP has estimated that 47,000 people are living in famine-like conditions.¹ Conflict is a key contributor to food insecurity, with its negative impact on the Yemeni currency, damage to transport infrastructure, disruption of business and incomes and displacement of populations. The most recent large-scale conflict began in 2014 between Ansar Allah and the internationally recognised Hadi government, later supported by a Saudi-led coalition. In recent years, a UAE-separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council, has split off from the Hadi government, dividing authority in the south of Yemen, while Houthi rebels control much of the north. Fighting intensified in 2021 as Houthi fighters tried to take control of the city of Ma’rib, the Hadi government’s last remaining stronghold in the north.

A November 2021 assessment of the war’s impact estimated that, by the end of 2021, the conflict had led to ‘377,000 deaths — nearly 60% of which were indirect and caused by issues associated with conflict like lack of access to food, water, and healthcare’.² Of these deaths, a majority were estimated to be young children, who are especially vulnerable to under-nutrition and malnutrition. By the end of the study period, WFP estimated that 2.25 million children under five needed treatment for global acute malnutrition (GAM)³ and the World Health Organization estimated that 400,000 were at risk of dying if they did not receive treatment. At the time of writing, the Ukraine war is expected to put increasing pressure on already high food prices in Yemen, by disrupting direct supply chains of wheat, rising global food prices, longer alternative supply chains and higher shipping costs. A rapidly deteriorating economy coupled with escalating conflict has led to claims that Yemen is home to the world’s worst food security crisis.

‘While food security is a real problem in Yemen, the emphasis on IPC Phase 5 may have distracted from the large populations facing higher mortality and morbidity in areas classified IPC Phases 3 and 4’

‘Active hostilities, the presence of landmines, insecurity, poor road infrastructure [and] poor telecommunication network coverage’⁴ challenge operations and make it difficult to collate accurate food security data for many parts of the country. As in South Sudan, interviewees noted challenges in the IPC process, including irregular data and competing interpretations. While the IPC process is intended to facilitate analysis of robust quantitative datasets, it is ultimately a process based on building consensus between humanitarians and local authorities, delivered in relatively pressured time frames. An assessment by the Famine Review Committee of the IPC classifications in Yemen found the extrapolation of data used for the Acute Food Insecurity and Acute Malnutrition classifications to be implausible and concluded that there ‘is not a body of evidence supporting a famine classification.’⁵ While food security is a real problem in Yemen, the emphasis on IPC Phase 5 may have distracted from the large populations facing higher mortality and morbidity in areas classified IPC Phases 3 and 4.⁶ Moreover, the Famine Review Committee warned that ongoing changes in Yemen’s geopolitics, food supply chains and fuel prices present significant risk factors. More accurate, monitorable data is needed to ensure that the food security situation does not become more severe.⁷

An important implication of the IPC famine declarations in Yemen has been the prioritisation of food aid in the response, which has had knock-on effects on other forms of support. Food aid and nutritional support comprised 48% of funding in 2021, with logistics accounting for an extra 15%. In December 2021, WFP was providing 13 million people with general food assistance.

‘An important implication of the IPC famine declarations in Yemen has been the prioritisation of food aid in the response, which has had knock-on effects on other forms of support.’

Food aid has proved a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families in Yemen and enabled recipients to supplement their livelihood strategies and invest their resources in other needs: ‘Most of the aid helps me provide my six kids with food; bread and butter, the school expenses and sometimes medicine’, explained one recipient. Cash and voucher assistance was also well received and helped to mitigate the issue of recipients selling their food aid package — usually at a lower value — to meet competing needs. The delivery of cash, vouchers, or in-kind food is determined by market functionality, WFP’s capability to deliver different modalities, and the availability of service providers.⁸ UNHCR found that cash assistance led to an improvement in most food consumption indicators up to July 2021 and a reduction in the use of negative coping mechanisms, with 91% of households spending cash assistance on food.⁹ Monitoring from WFP does, however, show that the deterioration of food consumption in 2021 was more pronounced among cash recipients, possibly due to currency fluctuations.¹⁰

There is also evidence of poor coordination in some sectors, ineffective targeting and low-quality food aid. Despite the increase in cash and voucher assistance, focus group participants in Yemen still reported reselling elements of their food baskets, and noted that the quality and diversity of the food provided had reduced over time, fetching a lower price at market. Aid workers in Yemen spoke of inefficient coordination between the actors providing different aid streams, explaining that agencies do not share recipient lists in some sectors and that there is a high chance of some individuals receiving multiple aid packages, while others are missed. This is compounded by the challenges humanitarian workers face in accessing conflict areas and conducting needs assessments, which make accurate targeting difficult. Households rely on resources mobilised through informal support networks to cope and survive.¹¹

‘[F]or many, cash provisions are insufficient to meet basic needs. Other essential humanitarian assistance — in agriculture, health, water and education — have been neglected.’

A significant proportion of those in need receive at least some cash assistance, with 102 partners providing $456 million in cash and voucher assistance to 6.8 million people (of the 13.8 million receiving food assistance) between January 2021 and September 2021. However, interviews suggest that, for many, cash provisions are insufficient to meet basic needs. Other essential humanitarian assistance — in agriculture, health, water and education — have been neglected. With medical expenses rapidly increasing, some food aid recipients had sold food baskets to buy medicine for their family. In 2021, Oxfam estimated that two in every five families in Yemen used debt to purchase essential provisions, with pharmacists reporting debt increasingly being used to pay for medicines.¹² Aid recipients reported some positive outcomes from livelihood programmes, but these projects are difficult to maintain in and sometimes end abruptly, causing frustration and disappointment. As the director of one local youth initiative observed: ‘What we notice is that the [aid recipients] are provided with the food packages, but they are never provided with the health and water assistance’.

‘The problem in Yemen is not a problem of food, [or] food availability; it’s a problem of food affordability, and humanitarian assistance cannot really deal with that.’

Food assistance is the primary need expressed by crisis affected people in Yemen and to date the humanitarian community has been successful at providing millions of people with food aid and nutritional support. However, the system is stretched as the economic situation deteriorates and conflict and violence continue. In the short term, providing aid recipients with a wide range of food and other aid may help stimulate local economies and enhance the resilience of crisis-affected people. In the longer term, political and economic solutions are required. As one aid worker put it: ‘Indeed, the problem in Yemen is not a problem of food, [or] food availability; it’s a problem of food affordability, and humanitarian assistance cannot really deal with that’.

The 5th State of the Humanitarian System Report was published in September 2022. Read the full report on ALNAP’s website: https://sohs.alnap.org.

[1] WFP ‘Yemen Profile’, (Yemen, WFP, 16 Nov 2021). www.wfp.org/countries/yemen.

[2] Hanna, D. K. Bohl, and J. D. Moyer, ‘Assessing the Impact of War in Yemen: Pathways for Recovery’ (New York: UNDP, 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/assessing-the-impact-of-warin-yemen-pathways-for-recovery.

[3] Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) is a measure of acute malnutrition in refugee children aged between 6 and 59 months. GAM provides information on the percentage of all children in this age range in a refugee population who are classified with low weight-for-height and/ or oedema. It is obtained by combining the number of children in this age range who have moderate acute malnutrition and severe acute malnutrition.

[4] OCHA, ‘Yemen Situation Report’ (Yemen: OCHA, January 2022). www.alnap.org/help-library/yemen-situation-report.

[5] D. Maxwell et al., ‘Famine review of the IPC Acute Food Insecurity and Acute Malnutrition Analysis: Conclusions and recommendations for five areas in Yemen.’ (IPC, 2022). www.alnap.org/help-library/famine-review-of-the-ipc-acute-food-insecurity-and-acutemalnutrition-analysis.

[6] Maxwell et al., ‘Viewpoint’. www.alnap.org/help-library/viewpoint-determining-famine-multidimensional-analysis-for-the-twenty-first-century.

[7] D. Maxwell et al., ‘Famine review of the IPC Acute Food Insecurity and Acute Malnutrition Analysis.’ www.alnap.org/help-library/famine-review-of-the-ipc-acute-food-insecurity-andacute-malnutrition-analysis.

[8] WFP ‘Yemen Annual Country Report 2021’ (WFP, 2021). www.wfp.org/operations/annualcountry-report/?operation_id=YE01&year=2021#/23453/23454.

[9] UNHCR ‘YEMEN | PDM UPDATE — JULY 2021’ (UNHCR, 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/unhcr-yemen-post-cash-distribution-monitoring-pdm-update.

[10] WFP ‘Yemen Annual Country Report 2021’ (WFP, 2021). www.wfp.org/operations/annualcountry-report/?operation_id=YE01&year=2021#/23453/23454.

[11] J. Kim et al., ‘Sharing to Survive: Investigating the Role of Social Networks During Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis’ (Washington DC: Resilience Evaluation, Analysis and Learning (REAL), 2022). www.alnap.org/help-library/sharing-to-survive-investigating-the-role-of-socialnetworks-during-yemen%E2%80%99s.

[12] Oxfam, ‘Nearly 40 per Cent of Yemen Families Forced into Debt to Pay for Essentials’, Oxfam, 2021. www.alnap.org/help-library/nearly-40-per-cent-of-yemen-families-forced-into-debt-topay-for-essentials.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
ALNAP

A global network dedicated to strengthening humanitarian action through evaluation and learning https://www.alnap.org/25-timeline