Yemen: Changing The Narrative


Aid workers in Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest country, appear to have made some headway in broadening the mainstream narrative to include the deepening humanitarian crisis.

At a press conference in Dubai on 18 December, heads of UN aid agencies appealed to the media to better cover humanitarian needs which the UN says will continue to rise well into 2012, affecting more than eight million people.

“Whenever you hear about Yemen, it’s always about security matters, anti-terrorism, Arab Spring, youth movement… Tagging onto that has been the fighting and the political concerns,” the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Jens Toyberg-Frandzen, told IRIN. “It isn’t the humanitarian that gets the headline.”

“In that whole messy picture, I don’t think many people are aware that the situation is as bad as it is now.”

The UN says some seven million people in Yemen are food insecure – meaning they go to bed hungry or do not know where the next meal is coming from. That number could well double – to nearly two-thirds of the population – as up-to-date data is collected, Toyberg-Frandzen said. Malnutrition rates in several parts of the country are already well beyond emergency threshold levels.

Yemen is also home to half a million people displaced by conflict internally, and more than 210,000 refugees and 500,000 migrants, mostly from the Horn of Africa. These figures are increasing, and the UN expects the number of internally displaced to rise to 700,000 next year.

Measles and cholera have broken out sporadically, and the Ministry of Health fears polio could re-emerge as basic health services have broken down and people can no longer afford medication amid a shattered economy.

Aid agencies are appealing for US$447 million to help the country in 2012, a 54 percent increase on last year’s consolidated appeal. Where the UN used to target its aid towards those who were affected by conflict, namely refugees and displaced people, it now sees large needs among average Yemenis.

The humanitarian situation worsened significantly after anti-government protesters took to the streets in February 2011. Government forces cracked down violently on the protesters, who were eventually supported by armed tribesmen and opposition forces, bringing the country to the brink of civil war. A political deal has returned some degree of calm to the most-affected cities of Sana’a and Taiz, but aid workers say the deal will have little immediate impact on the humanitarian situation, especially in the north and south, where separate conflicts involving rebels, separatist forces and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants continue.

Repeated warnings

“Maybe we haven’t done enough to speak out and make everyone understand,” Geert Cappelaere, the head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen, told IRIN.

That, despite repeated warnings for months of a “looming crisis” due to “shocking” malnutrition rates – warnings that have led to little result.

“[It’s] a broken record,” he said. “But it is a record we need to continue playing because the day Yemen is going to hit the wall, then nobody will [be able] to tell us that we have never warned [that it would] happen.”

The message seems to have reached several international media outlets, with headlines reading: “Worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen” and “Yemen ‘could be another Somalia’.”

Now it’s a matter of convincing the donors.

The UN also has appealed for more organizations on the ground to help deliver programmes to people in need in hard-to-reach areas.


IRIN is an independent, non-profit media organization. IRIN delivers unique, authoritative and independent reporting from the frontlines of crises to inspire and mobilise a more effective humanitarian response.

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