Aid and Conflict: Pitfalls in Yemen

Aid and Conflict: Pitfalls in Yemen

Jon B. Alterman

Aid organizations struggle to meet the staggering humanitarian needs in Yemen, but they increasingly are grappling with how aid delivery can complicate or even prolong a humanitarian crisis in the midst of war. Armies, militias, and war profiteers instrumentalize aid to enhance their own interests, either indifferent or hostile to the interests of civilian populations. Aid providers are not always well-situated to understand how their actions affect broader conflicts, but they understand that they do. While they resist privileging peacemaking over urgent relief, they also are eager to ensure their actions do not draw out the war and the suffering that flows from it.


No two countries have been as generous to Yemen in the last year as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which pledged billions of dollars in aid to the poor and embattled country on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. At the same time, those two countries are accused of causing much of Yemen’s current misery, as their battle against Houthi rebels drives tens of thousands from their homes, obstructs trade, and has caused thousands of civilian casualties.

The current struggle for the control of Yemen is not only a complex humanitarian emergency in the midst of war, but it is a complex humanitarian emergency that is a consequence of war. Yemen’s antagonists are battling for control of the country, and they are using whatever tools are at hand in order to advance their interests. In the Yemen context, where scarce food and fuel boost prices and money is in short supply, aid invariably becomes part of the equation of the conflict. It does so in several ways.

First, local political actors battle for the control of resources to distribute, to reward their supporters and to add to their own coffers. Every humanitarian organization needs an array of local partners. Who those partners are, and what ties they have to combatants, is not always clear. Humanitarians cannot distribute supplies in areas controlled by one of the many forces in Yemen without relying in some way on that force’s allies—in part because the forces in control of an area would encumber non-favored entities to ensure that its own networks benefit. Armed networks also charge transit or distribution fees, putting them somewhere between taxes and bribes. Distributing aid not only enriches the networks economically, but it also boosts their political sway by putting their allies in control of resources. Providing relief supplies aids the combatants in another way: the provision of resources from the outside frees up more local resources for fighting.

Second, outside donors can use aid to further political goals with the population. Directing resources to government-controlled areas and denying them to those controlled by the Houthis, for example, essentially besieges Houthi areas and holds the civilian population hostage. Ironically, doing so may further entrench the Houthis by eliminating alternative channels for civilians to obtain food, fuel, and water. In addition, showering resources on areas recently liberated from Houthi control may be intended to tempt Yemenis to expel the Houthis rather than meet the areas of greatest humanitarian need.

Yemen presents a series of wicked problems, but one of the most difficult is the best way to distribute aid. When humanitarian and political crises are intertwined, there is no way to neatly separate the two. Humanitarians are committed to providing relief from suffering, yet they increasingly understand that there are circumstances in which providing that relief may actually prolong the conflict and increase overall suffering. Humanitarians should not see themselves as agents of those working to solve political problems, but they must be aware of and be sensitive to the effects of their actions on the surrounding conflict.

There is no denying the scale and scope of assistance that the Saudi-led coalition (SLC) has promised to Yemen. The Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations Plan pledges $1.5 billion in new funding to the UN’s 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan, commits $30-40 million for port expansion, and an additional $20-30 million to improve roads.1 The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre also agreed to provide 900,000 liters of fuel for hospitals throughout Yemen.2 The United Arab Emirates claims it has donated almost $4 billion to Yemen over the last three years, and states that the Emirates Red Crescent has provided 35,000 tons of food and supplies since 2017. 3 Kuwait has also made significant pledges this year, totaling $172.4 million, just slightly behind the U.S. pledge of $190.1 million.4

And yet, despite its scope, the SLC has been sharply criticized for using its assistance to further its war aims. The SLC, for example, has continued to discourage trade through the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, which supplies approximately 70 percent of Yemen’s food and medicine.5 Rerouting through the Emirati-controlled port of Aden not only overburdens a port with limited capacity and moves shipments further from their intended targets, but also subjects shipments to multiple checkpoints controlled by combatants, any of which may seek to extort funds to ensure safe passage. A leading humanitarian agency reported in April 2018 that it encountered no fewer than 70 checkpoints on the 300-mile trip from Aden to Sana`a, transforming a formerly straightforward journey into an odyssey.6

The SLC has also helped build up the inland city of Ma’rib, formerly something of a backwater with a long tradition of rebellion in retribution for government neglect. Now, Ma’rib is a boomtown hosting General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a veteran soldier and controversial political figure who has expertly navigated Yemen’s shifting political sands and maintains close ties with the SLC.

The SLC coalition is not the only party using aid to further its aims. The Houthis reportedly sought to block assistance from reaching internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled Hodeidah prior to the SLC’s assault in an attempt to discourage others from following. The goal was to retain a large civilian population in the city as a sort of “human shield” to prevent an SLC assault.7 The Houthis have also used threats of violence to discourage relief organizations from working in government-controlled areas, and they have sought to hold areas hostage in order to ensure their supporters are rewarded. One aid worker recently reported that the Houthis blocked an assessment team from understanding the dire needs of a larger area unless immediate assistance was given to nearby Houthi allies without any assessment being performed. After a standoff of several days, that aid was delivered. 

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